Jumping into the National Hockey League can sometimes present a wide array of challenges for new players. What Nils Höglander has endured and accomplished with the Vancouver Canucks in 2021 is something else entirely.
Höglander's career has taken him from his minor hockey days in Malå, Sweden, a small lakeside town of 2,000 known for its ski slopes and fishing, all the way to becoming a core member of the Canucks in his first NHL season. Not only has that journey involved getting accustomed to a new country, a new language and a new group of teammates but doing so in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And to his credit, the 20-year-old winger has faced the adversity with a smile. "I'm really proud of myself, I've worked hard to be in this situation," Höglander said at the start of the season. "It feels amazing to be on the ice and be with the team now."
The NHL baptism the former 2019 second round draft pick has experienced is certainly not the same one his linemate Tanner Pearson got as a freshman. Pearson famously broke into the league in 2013-14 with the Los Angeles Kings, becoming an integral piece of the team's second Stanley Cup victory. In the eight years since, he's witnessed the first steps of many young hockey stars, including Höglander's.
"I think it's really different. Just the fact that you can't hang out with the guys or just do something inside with each other," Pearson said. "I remember when we played [before the pandemic], we had a pretty good crew that went out together a lot. But I think he's handled it pretty well."
In the average NHL rookie season, players have all the time they need to get accustomed to a new roster; both on the ice with an 82 game schedule and off of it through family dinners, team activities and shared hotel rooms on the road. The challenges of playing hockey during a worldwide pandemic caused all of those familiar plans to be modified or outright cut by the NHL for safety purposes.
Before his arrival in Vancouver for the abbreviated season, Höglander suited up in 23 games for Rögle BK of the Swedish Hockey League, an opportunity that simply wouldn't have been possible in a normal year. By the time Canucks' training camp began in January, Höglander already had his feet under him and was skating in midseason form.
And despite the current restrictions, Pearson and the rest of the Canucks have done what they can to make sure the kid they affectionately call "Höggy' enjoys his time in Vancouver. "I think it's just about talking to him a lot," Pearson said. "Obviously, the only place we can really hang out is at the rink. So making sure that everything's going well not just here, but at home too. How he's coping with not being able to do a lot."
Even without all the usual chances to get to know his new teammates, Höglander still made an instant impression on them. "He's a real nice kid," Pearson said. "He doesn't talk a whole lot. But on the ice, he's definitely a little water bug out there. He plays hard, and he's not afraid to go to the dirty areas to chip in."
While Höglander has been adjusting to learning a new language in Vancouver, he's let his play do all the talking for him. In his very first game as a Canuck, he pounced on a rebound and knocked the puck past Oilers goalie Mikko Koskinen for his first NHL goal; one of the bigger highlights in a rookie campaign that will likely see him finish top-five in team scoring.
Video: VAN@EDM: Hoglander scores in NHL debut
"I couldn't believe it when the puck went in there, I was just in the moment," Höglander said at the time.
For past Canucks rookie standouts like Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Brock Boeser, the fanfare surrounding their debuts were much more noticeable thanks to the buzz of a jam-packed arena. But even without being able to watch him play in person, Höglander has become a clear favourite among the socially distanced Canucks fanbase. Throughout the first half of the season, fans on social media led a movement to have his jersey corrected to include the proper umlaut 'Ö' in his name.
As his on-ice confidence has grown, so too has the number of people that have been hoping to see Höglander attempt his famous "Lacrosse Goal"; a move he accomplished twice in the SHL that won him the league's Goal of the Year award in back-to-back seasons.
Beyond his scoring touch, Höglander's work ethic and relentless "water bug" style play has both frustrated his opponents and quickly earned him the trust of the coaching staff. In a May 3rd game against Edmonton he provided a textbook example of those skills, beating defensemen Ethan Bear to a puck behind the net and setting up a screen for a Nate Schmidt blast, picking up an assist in the process.
Video: EDM@VAN: Schmidt wires a wrist shot through traffic
To his coach, Travis Green, the potential is rounding into place with every passing day. "I think he's shown some good glimpses of what he can be. He's had some great games," Green said.
"At times the seasons looked a little long for him. He's learning a lot on the fly as well. A lot of little details in the game. With the smaller ice, time and space is different. Offensively, I think it's been a bonus for him."
Höglander's offence and impressive rise has become the focal point of a Canucks season that hasn't gone according to plan. Regardless of the obstacles thrown his way, the young forward has routinely brought a positive attitude and a willingness to learn with him to the rink, and sometimes it's made all the difference.
"I think being a young kid, you want to enjoy it," Pearson said. "He's been given a pretty good opportunity to succeed, and he's taking advantage of it."
To his coach, that mindset shows the sky is the limit for Nils Höglander. "He's definitely a bright, bright player for us,'" Green said. "I'm excited to see how he develops from year to year. He's only gonna get better."