Elias Pettersson had one heck of a season.
He had 56 points (24-32-56) in 44 regular-season games and added 19 points (10-9-19) in 13 playoff contests. He won the SHL championship with the Växjö Lakers. He won the league scoring title. He was named SHL Rookie of the Year, best forward, MVP, and playoff MVP. To top it all off, he helped the Tre Kronor to their second straight world championship victory.
And now, he is ready for the NHL – if he’s used the right way.
Of course, Pettersson is mostly known for his incredibly accurate shot. His technique is completely different from Brock Boeser’s, as Pettersson needs a long wind-up to perform a textbook wrist shot whereas Boeser does most of the work with his arms, giving him a much quicker release. But even though Pettersson shows his opponents what he’s about to do quite early, they seldom find a way to stop him, thanks to his incredible accuracy. He’s proven he can do this at every level, and there is little reason to believe he won’t be able to do it in the NHL.
Just like his wrist shot, Pettersson’s one-timers have created a lot of buzz among Canucks fans. At every level he plays at, Pettersson is the go-to guy on the power play. Positioned at the top of the right circle, he gets pass after pass, with his team hoping he can fire one home.
This was especially exciting to see when he played on a unit with NHL stars John Klingberg, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Gustav Nyqvist for Team Sweden. They are all known to have extremely dangerous shots from the blue line or the circles, yet it was Pettersson who was relied on to get shots at the net again and again.
With his known standout attributes out of the way, let’s get to an underrated aspect of his game: his playmaking.
Pettersson is known as a sniper, and looking at his stat line, it makes sense. However, he is an extremely talented playmaker with fantastic vision and creativity as well.
In the clip below, Pettersson gets the puck at the right circle, but an opponent jumps into his way too quickly for him to get a shot off. Instead, he fakes a shot, then fakes left and goes right into the open space. From there, he pulls the puck back behind his legs to avoid the defender in front of him for a pass to the front of the net.
Below is another example of Pettersson’s smarts and puck skills, which also illustrates what kind of respect he’s already getting from world-class opponents. When he gets the puck at the right circle, he moves toward the net and draws in two penalty-killers. With all four defenders’ eyes locked on him, he finds his teammate at the near post, delivers a perfect tape-to-tape saucer pass, and picks up the secondary assist on a beautiful tic-tac-toe goal.
But here’s the problem a lot of people see: in all of the above clips, Pettersson uses the extra space of the European ice surface along with power-play situations to his advantage.
The public concern: even-strength production
It’s no secret: Pettersson excels with extra space. In 2017-18, 26 (9-17-26) of his 56 points came on the man advantage. But can he be effective at even strength at the NHL level?
If he plays in the NHL – and really, there appears to be no alternative – he will have to adjust to a smaller ice surface while playing against better opponents. To make matters worse, GM Jim Benning referenced Calder Trophy finalist Boeser when the club signed him – so the rookie will have to live up to sky-high expectations as well (as if Pettersson’s performance hadn’t done enough to shoot up expectations).
Having watched quite a lot of Växjö in the past season, along with Pettersson’s games at the world juniors and world championship, I must admit I’m not 100 percent sold on his ability to be a difference-maker for the Canucks at even strength either. This is not to say he never will be, but he might not be straight out of camp. There have simply been too many times when he disappeared completely, and only showed up on the power play.
That said, Pettersson has proven he has all the tools to produce at even strength as well.
In the clip below, he chases after a loose puck, forwards it to his teammate behind the net, then shakes off his opponent with a quick turn before moving into the open space where he receives the puck again. Instead of putting a low-danger shot at the net under pressure, he then sees his teammate coming in at the far post and plays a perfect cross-crease pass to set up a goal.
This assist shows Pettersson can not only make plays with extra space, but also under pressure. Still, plays like this don’t happen frequently enough yet, and he certainly needs to continue working on his strength and his ability to make plays when there’s little room around him.
Another area where Pettersson excels is the use of his speed along with his quick set of hands – allowing him to score highlight-reel goals like this one at the 2018 world juniors:
More importantly, though, he has little issues doing similar things against professionals.
In the clip below, Pettersson uses his speed to get past the first back-checker, then dekes out the first defenceman, allowing him to drive to the net and get a shot off. He won’t go down the outside lane and then use his body to keep the puck away from opponents and drive to the net. However, his outstanding puck skill and elusiveness allow him to find ways to get to the net nevertheless.
So, why would he not be able to make an impact in Vancouver right away?
The real concern: proper usage
At this point, it is impossible to predict what Benning and head coach Travis Green have in mind for their No. 1 prospect. In the long term, they want him to become the Canucks’ top-line centre, there’s no doubt about that. But what’s realistic for the upcoming year?
On the one hand, the Canucks seem to have sky-high expectations for Pettersson, which appears to be an indication that he will get a chance to play high up the lineup very soon. But on the other hand, they even scratched Brock Boeser early last season and to this day nobody really knows what the point was there. Boeser did get to play on the top line for the majority of the year, but those first few weeks were curious nonetheless.
There are also the two extremes named Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, who had to move back and forth between the press box and fourth-line duty. The Canucks didn’t want to put too much pressure on them right away and also wanted Virtanen to spend a lot of time lifting weights and building up his frame, as he was supposed to become a big power forward. If they think Pettersson needs to put some muscle on his 6-foot-2, 165-pound frame – which he does –, who knows what they’ll do this time.
And then there’s some actual concern: Pettersson might not be ready to play centre.
The Lakers had him on the wing for most of the past season, but they did try him out at centre for a portion of the year. While he was fine offensively in that time – though he still didn’t stand out all that much at even strength – he struggled with his defensive assignments.
The defensive side of the game is perhaps the area Pettersson needs to improve in the most. While it’s fair to say an offensive player like him should focus on scoring goals, he should still have a certain level of reliability in the defensive zone. Plus, centres have much higher defensive responsibility than wingers.
In the clip below, Pettersson back-checks hard and interferes with the puck-carrier. However, he then takes an outside lane to get around him, and is slow to move toward the net. While this goal against certainly isn’t on him, it’s just one of many situations where I’d like to see a little more intensity on the defensive side of things.
Below is another example, and this time, I’d go as far as to say Pettersson could have defended the play. He comes in slowly as the last player on the back-check and neglects his check at the far post. The goal-scorer should have been covered by the Växjö defender who comes in too late with a stick sweep, but had Pettersson come back with more speed, he would have had a chance to get to the puck.
In one final clip, Pettersson covers well for his defender that rushes up the boards and turns the puck over. As a result, he is the first man back to defend the counter attack. However, as in the examples above, he lacks intensity on defence and simply hovers by his opponents and allows a shot on net – though he did angle him properly, making sure he couldn’t pull to the net first.
So, while Pettersson shows a lot of promise offensively, he still needs a lot of work on the defensive side of the game – especially if the Canucks want him to be a centre.
If the Canucks agree that Pettersson isn’t ready for a centre role, they could start him on the wing. A few games at centre in the AHL probably wouldn’t hurt, but given the makeup of the Canucks’ roster, they desperately need a scoring forward like Pettersson, no matter if it’s on the wing or down the middle – so the AHL isn’t happening.
If they do let him play on the wing, however, the long-term outlook could be similar to what happened with fellow Swede William Nylander in Toronto. Like Pettersson, Nylander was drafted as a player who could potentially be a centre at the highest level, but spent most of his time on the wing. Now 22 years old after his third NHL season, he’s still a winger for the Maple Leafs and has played only a handful of games down the middle. Will he ever be a full-time centre? Who knows.
Still, the Canucks need scoring help and they need it now. The ideal scenario for Pettersson would be to get every opportunity to succeed, without putting too much pressure on him. In other words, he should get as much offensive time as possible, play in his usual right-boards spot on PP1, and play at least 15 minutes a night – on the wing. If things go well, they can try moving him to centre later on. If they don’t, they should consider giving him some centre time with the Utica Comets rather than giving him the Virtanen treatment.
With all that in mind, here’s how the forward lines could shake out:
Sven Baertschi – Bo Horvat – Brock Boeser
Loui Eriksson – Brandon Sutter – Elias Pettersson
Antoine Roussel – Sam Gagner – Jake Virtanen
Markus Granlund – Jay Beagle – Tim Schaller
Extras: Nikolay Goldobin, Brendan Leipsic
While most would agree that Nikolay Goldobin and Brendan Leipsic would be more exciting and more promising options than the likes of Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tim Schaller, the Canucks didn’t sign any of these guys to big long-term deals to have them sitting in the press box. The Canucks lack high-end talent, yet have too many well-paid veterans to give their young players a decent chance.
Pettersson, Goldobin, Leipsic, and even Reid Boucher, Adam Gaudette and Jonathan Dahlen will be fighting for spots and some of them will without a doubt end up with the Comets. But as long as he’s used properly, Pettersson should not be one of them.