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Photo Credit: © Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Elias Pettersson’s highest hopes and lowest bars for 2021

Nothing is set in stone as of this writing, but multiple rock-solid sources have suggested that the NHL will resume on January 13, 2021, with a 56-game regular-season schedule and drastically reconfigured divisions. Play is expected to be mostly, if not entirely, within division. Travel is expected to be greatly reduced.

What better time, then, to roll out our 2021 CanucksArmy player preview series, where we examine the best that fans of the Vancouver Canucks can expect from each individual player in 2021, as well as the worst-case scenarios.

Today, we’re starting with Elias Pettersson, and for good reason.

Elias Pettersson Now

  Games Goals Assists Points PPG Avg. TOI Corsi For
2019/20 68 27 39 66 0.97 18:32 55.2%
Career 139 55 77 132 0.95 18:23 53.2%

Prognosticating Pettersson’s performance has always been a dicey endeavour. He’s made a habit of exceeding even the loftiest of expectations thus far in his career, and it’s one he doesn’t seem likely to break.

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Pettersson spent the entire 2019/20 regular season flirting with point-per-game status, only to achieve it in the postseason with 18 points in 17 games.

A full PPG season has to be the bare minimum expectation for Pettersson heading into 2021, but it’s certainly not his ceiling.

The Best of 2021 Pettersson

Best Wishes Games Goals Assists Points PPG
2021 56 25 39 64 1.15

After a couple of worrying injuries in his rookie campaign, Pettersson missed just a single game in 2019/20. The best possible 2021 for him starts with a bill perfect health throughout. From there, we could see Pettersson’s PPG jump considerably, as is often the case for third-year players.

If he could jack it up all the way to 1.15, he’d be in line with what the likes of Jack Eichel, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews produced last year, right around the periphery of the NHL’s top-ten PPG producers. For the sake of a deadly-accurate prediction, we’ll give Pettersson the same exact number of assists in 12 fewer games and shave a couple off his goal total, presumably because of a bounce-back on Brock Boeser’s end.

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That’s a big step up for any player, and a preposterously high bar to clear. Pettersson’s reputation for overdelivering makes him worthy of it, and a shortened season could work in his favour if he gets off to a hot enough start.

The Worst of 2021 Pettersson

Worst Fears Games Goals Assists Points PPG
2021 45 19 25 44 0.97

Obviously, any player’s success in any given season can be hampered by injury, but that’s doubly true with a compact schedule. Consider that if Pettersson were to miss just 11 games, the same amount he did as a rookie, he’d be missing out on a fifth of the season. That would have a huge detrimental impact on his personal statline, as well as the overall chances for the Canucks to make the playoffs.

Another way in which Pettersson could disappoint, and one that is far more within his control, is by plateauing in production. He avoided the sophomore slump in 2019/20 and increased his scoring, but then he took it to another level in the playoffs. Seeing Pettersson dip back below PPG status wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be surprising, especially given the heights some are predicting. It may sound outlandish, but with a 56-game schedule it’s entirely feasible that Pettersson scores fewer than 20 goals in 2021, and just imagine the headlines.

What else does a successful 2021 for Pettersson look like?

Of course, success cannot be boiled down to mere statistics. There are countless other ways in which Pettersson could live his best on-ice life in 2021.

Lotto Line Forever: If Pettersson is going to drastically increase his scoring, he’s going to need to play almost all of his minutes on the Canucks’ top unit alongside its two most talented forwards aside from himself. That means that the Lotto Line stays together all season long, with interruptions kept to a minimum and only for shakeup purposes.

Elevating Brock Boeser again: JT Miller proved a potent partner for Pettersson, but if he’s going to really get rolling, he’s going to need his best buddy to be rolling, too. Much of Boeser’s bounce back is on his own shoulders, but a further step forward from Pettersson would go a long way toward helping. This would be one of those mutually beneficial sorts of scenarios.

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Taking a couple shifts on the PK: As Josh Elliotte-Wolfe covered a week ago, there’s a great case to be made for putting Elias Pettersson on the penalty kill. For one, he’d be the Canucks’ most dangerous shorthanded threat since Pavel Bure, and it’s just one more way to get him on the ice more often, which is always in the Canucks favour.

A Selke vote or two: More time on the PK could attract more attention to Pettersson’s two-way talents, and that could mean he finally gets on the Selke Trophy voting record.

More ice-time in general: More ice-time for Pettersson should equate to more points. It also definitely equates to less ice-time for depth forwards of shakier quality, which means a sharp positive swing for the Canucks in terms of possession. And if some of those extra minutes could be played against the opponent’s best players, something Pettersson has proven quite capable of, it should mean more offensive opportunity for postseason scoring dynamo Bo Horvat. Is he capable of at least 20 minutes? He creeped close to that in the playoffs.

Upping that faceoff percentage: In the regular season, Pettersson only barely improved on his rookie faceoff rate with a measly 41.84%. He had it all the way up to 49.4% in the playoffs, however, which suggests that he improved throughout the year. Cracking 50% would be a nice feather in his cap, even if the overall importance of winning faceoffs is typically exaggerated.

Joining Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as a top-three center in the division: Now we get into the accolades. Whether in the Pacific or the All-Canadian Division, Pettersson has two truly elite centers to contend with in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But a major step forward from Pettersson this year could see him join those two as a definitive top-three divisional center, vaulting over other contenders like Auston Matthews and Mark Schiefele.

Continuing to post elite possession numbers: Pettersson’s Corsi and other such rates are already some of the best in the league. Realistically, he can probably only up it by a percentage point or two over the long-term, but even that little bit could make a big difference.

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Top-ten finish in NHL scoring: Pettersson tied for 20th overall in NHL scoring and 25th in PPG for the 2019/20 season. A top-ten finish would be tough, but it’s not impossible at all with a little luck on his side.

A big ol’ contract extension: If we can step off-ice for a moment, it also bears mentioning that contract talks will play a major role in defining Pettersson’s 2021. If he signs a long-term extension early on, especially one with a generous cap hit, it will only add to fan’s joy at his success.

What might get in the way?

We hate to end on a negative note, but here are a few of the things that could bring Pettersson back down to Earth in 2021.

Intense defensive focus: With Tyler Toffoli and Josh Leivo gone, there are simply fewer talented forwards on the Canucks for opposing defences to focus on, and that means they’re freer to focus their attention on Pettersson. He can expect to face even more intense defensive scrutiny in 2021 than he has before, especially if the schedule consists entirely of divisional play. He may not get as rough a ride as he did in the 2020 playoffs, but he’ll get a rough ride all the same.

Targeted injuries: Pettersson has a history of being violently targeted by opponents, both in the regular season and playoffs, occasionally resulting in injury. If 2021 is all divisional play, rivalries will erupt, and foes will have even more of an impetus to target the Canucks’ best player. Of course, Pettersson may be his own best protection in this regard, as he proved in the postseason that when he pushes back, he pushes back hard.

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A step back from JT Miller: Statistically-speaking, Miller is due for significant regression in 2021. His team-leading numbers last season were way over and above his career average, but there is also reason to believe that his scoring was being suppressed in previous stops, and that this is the real Miller. Either way, Pettersson’s production is irrevocably tied to Miller’s, so any step back from Miller would hurt Pettersson’s bottom-line.

Shooting percentage regressing: Through two seasons, Pettersson has enjoyed an average shooting percentage of 18.0%, well over-and-above the league standard. It was 18.4% in the playoffs. That either means that Pettersson has been at least a little lucky, or that he’s already one of the NHL’s most accurate shooters. Personally, we’d bet on the latter.

Distracting contract talks: We all know this tale all too well. If Pettersson’s contract talks drag on throughout the season, or if there’s any reported break in negotiations, it will become a dominant storyline of 2021, and especially if the same is true for Quinn Hughes. Pettersson has never seemed like the distractable type, but it’s probably for the best to avoid any potential distractions all the same, and this would be a sizeable one.

What sort of season are you expecting from Elias Pettersson? Sound off in the comments below, and stay tuned for the rest of our player preview series.