Canucks fans haven’t had much to cheer about this season, but a 7-1 win over the Ottawa Senators Monday night had to boost their spirits a little. Not only did Vancouver explode offensively, it also held its opponent to fewer than three goals in a game for the first time this season.
It was a refreshing reprieve from a panic-inducing start to the season that saw the Canucks drop five of their first seven games. And while questions still remain as to when the top line will start filling the net and whether the Canucks can keep the puck out of their own net, an unquestionable bright spot has been the play of 2019 second-round draft pick Nils Hoglander.
Hoglander got the attention of the hockey world with not one, but two lacrosse-style goals before playing an NHL game. The skill Hoglander possesses is obvious, but what’s impressed head coach Travis Green the most lately is his work ethic and play away from the puck.
“I think at the beginning of the year, I wasn't sure what to expect out of his defensive game,” said Green after Monday’s win. “He's shown me he can play on the other end of the puck. He knows he has to play well when he plays with that line”
That line Green referred to has been the Canucks' best line two weeks into the season. Hoglander along with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson are the only Canucks line to have played more than 40 minutes together at even-strength (60:26) and have outshot, out-chanced and outscored their opponents in that time.
Hoglander has been a big part of his line’s success at both ends of the ice. Take his assist against the Sens Monday night for example. The pass to Pearson is unbelievable, but that play starts in Vancouver’s end. Hoglander wins a puck battle off a face-off and heads up ice, chipping the puck into the Senators zone before laying out to get the puck to his line mate.
Hoglander is a perfect example that you don’t need to be big to play big. Listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, he has won a team-high 21 puck battles at even-strength and a team-high 15 in the offensive zone. His 15 OZ puck battle wins ranks 14th among all forwards -- tied with the likes of Leon Draisaitl, Gabriel Landeskog and Blake Wheeler.
This sequence against the Montreal Canadiens, which leads to a scoring chance, tells you everything you need to know about Hoglander's compete level.
"I feel strong out there, and heavy on the puck,” Hoglander said on Monday. “I can battle out there.”
Yes he can.
Green added, “He’s a smart little player. Works extremely hard. Isn’t afraid to go to the tough areas.”
No he’s not.
Hoglander isn’t shy to be the first man in on the forecheck either, recovering 15 dump-ins at even-strength this season, second only to Ryan O’Reilly.
Puck battle wins and dump-in recoveries won’t get you on highlight reels the way a lacrosse-style goal will, but these are the types of plays that extend possessions, create scoring chances and ultimately produce goals. These are the types of plays that endear a young player to his new coach.
Hoglander has been a buzzsaw early in the season for the Canucks and an integral part of the Horvat line’s early success. That hard work has led to four points in eight games, good for fourth in rookie scoring.
So, when you’re watching the game Wednesday night, keep an eye on number 36 in blue. He can dazzle you when the puck is on his stick, but his impact on the game when it’s not has been equally as impressive.