After being the last guy cut from last year's Swedish national junior team, Nils Hoglander has been on a mission to not only make the team this year, but be one of the offensive leaders at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"Last year was really disappointing, but it also helped motivate me to be better," said the 18-year-old drafted in the second round by the Vancouver Canucks this past June. "I've worked really hard to make the team this year, but I don't just want to be on the team. I want to be one of our best players and really help the team win. We have a really good team and I want them to know they can count on me to use my speed and my creativity to help us score goals and to play big in big moments."
That's the kind of confidence that was on display when he scored that ridiculous lacrosse-style goal to help his team secure a win against Djurgarden earlier this season and that's also the kind of confidence Swedish head coach Tomas Monten is hoping will be on display in Czech Republic as the WJC gets underway today.
"There was a lot of hype about that goal he scored, but while he's clearly very skilled and is capable of scoring goals like that, I think his value is in the plays he's able to create when you don't think there's a play to be made," Monten explained. "It might not always work out, but he's the kind of player that always tries to make a difference on the ice and that's really important for us. That's what we want from him.
"Last year, he didn't make the team because I felt like he couldn't make one of our two top lines and if he couldn't play in a role that I thought he should have - because he's not a shutdown player, he's not a PK player - then he shouldn't be put in a position where he can't succeed," the coach continued. "In the end, we didn't have a lot of offense in Vancouver last year so maybe that was a bad call by me, but, this year, he gets another chance and we expect him to be a player that makes an impact for us."
Cam Abbott, who has coached Hoglander the past year and a half in Rogle of the Swedish Hockey League, doesn't think that will be a problem.
"He has an exceptionally diverse skill set - strong on the puck, great shot, makes a lot of highlight reel moves - but what I like about him is that he continues to push himself and get better. He comes to the rink with the right attitude every day and it's fun to see as his coach because he puts a lot of work in and is excited about continuing to improve."
Despite his plethora of offensive skills, Abbott says one of Hoglander's best assets is his physical play, even though he's only 5-foot-9, 190 pounds.
"The strength that he has to protect the puck… it's unnatural and completely unexpected," Abbott said. "Just a guy with his size to be able to do what he does, it's something you might not be able to appreciate until you spend a lot of time watching him and can notice these details to his game. Everyone wants to focus on his offensive skills, but he can defend really well too, especially combined with his ability to handle the puck in tight areas. He's pretty special in that way."
Abbott also appreciates how hard Hoglander works at getting better off the ice as much as he does on it and he's not talking about in the weight room.
"He's interested in learning how he can get better and watches a lot of video," he explained. "There's a lot of similar situations that happen on the ice and being able to see the video and dissecting each play and talking about it and some of the different things he could have done and possibly make better choices next time is really good for his development. He seems to really like the feedback and it's almost a daily thing for him.
"As his coach, I love to see it because he still needs to work on his understanding of the game without the puck," he continued. "Defensively, he's taken a big step, but there's room for even more improvement, especially when it comes to using his linemates more to create more offensive opportunities and not always trying to do it all himself."
Hoglander agreed and said he wants to work on reading the game better so he can be at the right place at the right time to make good things happen. He's also working on making better decisions with the puck off the rush and wants to get stronger so he can be even more effective in the dirty areas and winning puck battles.
He also wants continue to improve his strengths - speed, creativity and puck handling, especially in tight areas.
"Making plays like [the lacrosse-style goal] is not my main focus, but yes, of course, I will practice it before practice or when we're on the ice afterward. I practice a lot of different moves like that. It's a lot of fun to try new things and I'm just glad it was a goal," he said with a sly smile. "I hope it inspires other players to be creative and try new things and just have fun. That's how we get better as players and grow the game. I mean, it was a goal. We all like goals, right?"
Abbott said this wasn't the first time he's made that move - he actually scored a similar goal last year - and was confident in saying it woudln't be the last and that it spoke more to Hoglander's confidence even more than his exceptional skill level.
"You have to have a lot of skill and a lot of confidence to be able to make that play and he certainly does. It doesn't surprise me at all that he tried it or that he scored on it - but that's also because I know he practices it," the coach explained. "It's not just something he pulled out of thin air and thought I'm going to try this. No. It's in his bag of tricks and this was the right time to try it and I'll continue to encourage him to think creatively like that, especially when it ends up in the back of the net. I think it's really cool for him and really good for hockey."
Monten and Team Sweden will be relying on that creative thinking to help them make it back to the medal games after a disappointing 5th place finish as last year's world junior championship.
"He's a speedy player. He's really skilled, strong on the puck and can make plays. It's his second year in the SHL and he's had all this experience with the national team and I think he's just confident," he said. "He knows he's going to be one of the top guys on our team and it shows on the ice. We're excited about what he can bring to the team."
Hoglander, who will turn 19 just before the tournament, is embracing the expectations that will be on him as one of the leaders of the team, both on and off the ice, and is well aware he's got just one one shot to win a medal at this tournament and he wants it to be the right color.
"We set the standard high, but there's a reason. We believe we can win gold. So, why shouldn't that be our goal?," he said. "We don't just want to play in this tournament and we don't just want to be in the quarterfinals or the semifinals. We want to win it and I want to be one of the players that helps us do it.
"I've done everything I can to earn a spot on this team because this is my only chance to do this and I will do everything I can to make sure we come home with a gold medal."