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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The case for putting Elias Pettersson on the Canucks’ penalty kill

Whenever I watch Elias Pettersson play I think to myself, “man, there’s just something missing here”.

Okay, not actually, but there is still something missing from his game. The young Swede has shown that he can not only excel offensively in the NHL through two seasons, but also contribute at an unexpected level defensively. That’s exactly the reason why Pettersson should be playing on the penalty kill.

I know, it sounds like it would limit him in other areas of the game and be an unnecessary strain on him at this point in his career. But there are comparable players around the NHL taking that step, while still progressing on the offensive side, too.

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The Comparisons

I’ll start with the most apt comparison: Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes (not that other Sebastian Aho). Aho is heading into his fifth NHL season, but the past couple of years are where his penalty killing minutes saw an uptick. Pettersson will be playing in his third season next year, which is when Aho started seeing minutes on the PK. The difference between them is that Pettersson in his second season (2019-20) was way better defensively than Aho was in his sophomore year back in 2017-18.

This shows that Pettersson’s defensive game is progressing much quicker than usual for a young number one center, as he’s positive in limiting chances and high-danger opportunities.

Looking at this past season for both, Pettersson not only limited chances more frequently than Aho at even strength, but Pettersson was actually significantly better at limiting high-danger scoring chances — Aho really struggled in that category — but also chances in general.

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This may just make you think that Aho is not a good fit on the penalty kill, but he’s actually been a big part of why the Canes PK has improved the past two seasons. In the two years that Carolina has had Aho feature heavily on the penalty kill they have finished 8th (2018-19) and 4th (2019-20) in PK% across the NHL. The year prior the Hurricanes finished 24th (2017-18).

The other big change the Hurricanes made ahead of the 2018-19 season was promoting Rod Brind’Amour to Head Coach, after he served as an assistant with the team for several years prior. Brind’Amour is a new age coach, which is a big reason why I think he trusts putting his top offensive players in positions where they have to defend as well. In the end, it just makes the player, and the team, better.

Going back to the Pettersson and Aho comparison, this comprehensive chart from Evolving-Hockey.com shows the large defensive GAR (Goals Above Replacement) gap at even strength swung heavily in Pettersson’s favour between the two, essentially meaning Pettersson was better at defending. You will also notice that despite Aho struggling defensively at even strength, he doesn’t necessarily struggle playing shorthanded.

 

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One more thing to look at is that Pettersson was able to make a positive impact in every facet of the game, which shows how much he thrives when given an opportunity. The only category he has yet to make an impact in has been on the PK, which to this point would be due to a lack of opportunity.

The reason that Aho is used on the PK is not only because he can handle himself defensively, but also because it gives the Canes an opportunity to counterattack with a higher success rate.

Another fun coincidence in Carolina is that they went from 29th in SH goals for in 2017-18 when Aho wasn’t on the PK, to 11th and 2nd in the NHL the past two seasons while he’s been a feature on their penalty kill. Shorthanded goals are relatively random so it’s not much to write home about, but I think it’s worth pointing out regardless. Aho has 5 of the 13 SH goals the Hurricanes have scored in the past two seasons.

I do want to point out that Aho wasn’t on the primary penalty killing unit for Carolina, though he was on PK2 with Teuvo Teravainen (another first liner for Carolina) and played the third most PK minutes out of any Hurricanes forward this past season, which is exactly where I would like to see Pettersson get minutes.

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Pettersson doesn’t need to be out there for every single penalty kill, but if he’s killing between 30 and 45 seconds you can still get that positive impact of his defense being a factor when it matters most while still keeping him relatively fresh.

The Boston Guy

Obviously, the extracurriculars of Brad Marchand’s game are not desirable, but it’s hard to deny that when he sticks to playing hockey, he can be a very productive player. Marchand has been a feature on the penalty kill in Boston for pretty much his entire career – playing over 100 PK minutes every full season since his second year in the league.

The reason I bring Marchand up is because he’s been able to contribute heavily offensively while being sound defensively. His even strength RAPM chart is very similar to Pettersson’s, though Marchand is a winger.

Again, it’s an example of a player that plays in every game scenario and still has success.

The Magic Man

My favourite Pettersson comparable is Pavel Datsyuk.

Not just because Pavel Datsyuk was arguably the best player in the league at his peak, but also because their games are eerily similar. Both can be flashy offensively while putting up solid numbers and leading their team on the power play and at even strength. Both also excel defensively, and Datsyuk was heavily featured on Detroit’s penalty kill.

Look at this chart for Datsyuk from the 2007-08 season.

Positive impacts in literally every aspect of the game while still playing heavy minutes for the Wings.

Datsyuk was 15th in the league for ice time among NHL forwards that year (21:22 minutes per game), he also led his team in power play minutes, while playing the third-most penalty killing minutes for the Red Wings that season. Datsyuk was 4th in the league that season with 97 points as well.

Oh, and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup that season. That must be nice.

Anyway, that was an amazing season for an amazing player, which is why I would consider it Pettersson’s peak if he could reach that level. Obviously Pettersson has a ways to go before he hits Datsyuk levels, but he has the raw talent to get to that point. Adding penalty killing to Pettersson’s skill set would only improve him as a player, as it’s done for the three players I’ve outlined.

The Offensive impact

Whenever I have seen Pettersson brought up as a potential option on the penalty kill for Vancouver, the main cause for concern has been people not wanting to see minutes taken away from the Swede when the team is even strength, which is completely fair.

Last season Pettersson played an average of 18:32 minutes per game, 63rd most for NHL forwards, and under 4 full minutes less than Leon Draisaitl who led the NHL’s forwards with 22:37. Draisaitl also played a decent amount of minutes on the PK for Edmonton, but wasn’t one of their main options.

By the numbers, Pettersson is at least a top 15 center in the league (probably in the top 10) – those kind of players are generally the ones you want to see on the ice more often. A natural progression of about 1-2 minutes more per game isn’t out of the question. Using Aho as a comparison again. his average time on ice went up from 17:55 in 2017-18 (played 2:57 PK minutes TOTAL throughout that whole season) to 20:09 in 2018-19 (played 87:19 PK minutes throughout that season), which also happened to be his third NHL campaign. This shows that Pettersson would see an increase in minutes overall, but it wouldn’t necessarily cut into his more productive offensive minutes.

The other big concern is whether or not Pettersson’s productivity would drop if he was playing on the penalty kill. There’s no way of knowing for certain, but odds are he wouldn’t see a major decrease as it would just be a natural part of his development. Aho and Marchand both saw steady increases in their production despite penalty killing time.

Also, I think we’ve learned not to doubt Pettersson’s ability. This is the same guy that hadn’t played center all that often until coming over to the NHL, where he has thrived at that position.

The Internal Issue

As you may have heard, the Vancouver Canucks have a bit of a salary cap situation.

Part of the reason for that lies in the just over 13 million dollars committed to Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Brandon Sutter.

All three of which happened to be in the top 4 most played PK minutes for the Canucks last season. Here’s the thing with those guys; they don’t provide a lot of offence, so they need to get their minutes somewhere. They were by no means bad either, with the Canucks finishing 16th in the NHL in penalty killing percentage.

Penalty killing obviously makes the most sense as those three are relatively serviceable there and it keeps the team’s younger, more valuable, players out of potential scenarios where they may have to block a shot or sacrifice the body to make a PK play. For most players, that’s completely understandable, but Pettersson doesn’t put himself in a position where he has to block a shot all that often.

There are definitely going to be times where Pettersson has no choice but to get in the way of a shot, but most of the time his defending involves stick checks and sound positioning, and less frantic shot blocks.

The reason those three are an issue is because their contracts need to be validated in some fashion, and when you’re put on the PK the value lies in not getting scored on and getting the puck out of the zone. The trio of Sutter/Beagle/Eriksson can meet that requirement.

That causes a bit of a roadblock for Pettersson as odds are he won’t even be given the opportunity with the amount of veterans on the roster, despite the potential of him flourishing in the role. But again, Pettersson would ideally be on the second penalty killing unit to minimize the tough minutes while still getting his positive defensive play. A combination of him and Motte would be super interesting, as Motte has the ability to take more of a physical beating on the PK. There is a scenario of Eriksson sees a lot of the press box next year that Pettersson may get an opportunity.

Penalty killing should be the next factor added to Pettersson’s game. The comparables around the league are there, and Pettersson has shown the ability to excel defensively. In the end though, the team’s veteran players maybe the reason he can’t take the next step.