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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t worry, be patient: Elias Pettersson is going to be just fine

The opening two-and-a-half weeks of the Vancouver Canucks’ 2021/22 season has featured a number of standout performances. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is skating like a top pairing defender, Thatcher Demko is saving games on a nightly basis, and Tyler Myers has improbably won back the heart of the fanbase. Conor Garland leads the team in scoring, JT Miller is right there with him, and Bo Horvat is nearly on pace for a 50-goal season.

And yet, all anyone seems to want to talk about is the player who is standing out for all the wrong reasons: Elias Pettersson.

On the surface, Pettersson’s bad start is undeniable. Whereas previously he’s scored at around a 0.90 point-per-game rate, he’s managed just four points through the first eight games of the season for a PPG of 0.50. Worse, Pettersson looks like he’s struggling; constantly frustrated, often a step behind, making one move too many, taking too long to get a shot off. All are signs of a hockey player going through a rough patch, and all of them look especially disconcerting when they’re happening to the typically unflappable Pettersson.

But there’s recognizing a bad start, and then there’s some of the other worries and doubt being tossed Pettersson’s way.

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Some are going as far as to say that Pettersson will never return to form. That this current mode of play is just going to be the status quo moving forward. That it’s a good thing the Canucks only locked him up for three years. That, unfortunately, he may not be the top line, elite center that everyone thought he would be.

Well, folks, we’re here to tell you that, while you have every right to be disappointed in Pettersson’s start, any such long-term worries are decidedly premature.

And, really, Canucks fans, you should know better by now.

The reality is that season start-ups are always magnified by their very nature, but they’re not any more important than any other portion of the season. If a player were to have a bumpy eight-game stretch at some other point in the season, it might not seem like such a big deal, because hockey is a traditionally streaky sport. But right now, there’s nothing else to compare Pettersson’s current performance to. These eight games are the sum total of his 2021/22 season right now, and they haven’t been good ones, so his whole worth as a player is being called into question. But if Pettersson went through a period of four points in eight games in January, it probably wouldn’t garner a single headline, because it would be rightly recognized as just a small sample of the season. If Pettersson’s going to drop four-point games every now and then, stretches like this are also inevitable.

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Sometimes, the start of a season dictates how a player will perform for the entirety of it, but it’s just as often not the case. Players bounce back from slow starts and cool down from hot starts all the time. It’s just difficult to remember that when the start-up is the only thing on the books.

True, this is Pettersson’s second slow start in a row, but people forgot about the early 2021 doldrums pretty quickly, and they’re only being brought up now because of the pattern. Why did they forget? Because, after two points in eight games to open up January 2021 — an even worse pace than his current one — Pettersson went lights out and notched 19 points in his next 18 games. Had his season not been derailed by injury, it was trending in the direction of his first PPG campaign, slow start be damned.

Consider, for a moment, Pettersson’s shooting percentage, a traditional indicator of whether or not a player will snap back to their previous level of production. Throughout his career prior to this season, Pettersson has scored on approximately 17% of his shots, qualifying him as a genuine NHL sniper. Thus far in 2021/22, he’s got one goal on 21 shots for a shooting percentage under 5%.

Were he just finding success at his career average, Pettersson would have a couple more goals and be right back at his usual scoring pace.

Critics, however, will point out that Pettersson’s shooting percentage is lower than it has been in the past because Pettersson isn’t shooting as well as he used to. He’s taking longer to get shots off, mishandling passes, and not picking his spots with his trademark precision. That one shot that did go in ricocheted off the backboards and the opposing goalie before finding the net. Thursday’s non-effort in Philadelphia was easily Pettersson’s worst of the season thus far, and he looked downright lost at times as he bobbled away the Canucks’ chances to tie it up late in the game.

But for every eye-test that Pettersson fails, there’s a handful of aggravating factors on hand to explain his shortcomings.

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Pettersson suffered a severe hyperextension of his wrist in March. The injury didn’t require surgery, but it did take plenty of recovery time, and Pettersson didn’t even start shooting pucks again until mid-July, two months after the Canucks had been eliminated. Assuming he wasn’t up to full speed until even later than that means nearly an entire offseason dedicated to injury recovery instead of advanced training, and that has clearly had an impact.

The shortchanged summer was, of course, further complicated by the long and drawn-out contract negotiations that culminated in Pettersson missing the majority of Canucks training camp, leaving him even further behind his peers. Why does Pettersson look like he’s several steps behind? Because he started the race later than everyone else!

It also bears mentioning that a player trying to get their feet under them and find consistency is going to have a tough time doing that without consistent linemates, and so Travis Green’s constant blending of the roster could definitely be seen as an aggravating factor, too. His most regular partner in crime, Brock Boeser, has also experienced a slow start after a preseason injury. Pettersson has spent time with lesser linemates instead, and that can’t be helping matters much.

Put simply, there are countless reasons to believe that Pettersson will bounce back, and soon. The only force truly pushing in the other direction right now is pessimism. Everything beyond that is jumping to conclusions far too early, and, as we said at the outset, Vancouver fans really should know better.

Hasn’t this franchise already learned its lesson about Swedish superstars and patience? Daniel and Henrik Sedin didn’t just have slow starts when they were younger, they had entire slow seasons. And many tried to write them off for it. But their skill was always undeniable, and it was well worth the wait for them to start displaying it on a consistent basis.

Elias Pettersson’s skill is similarly undeniable, and his early-career body of work is decidedly more impressive than that of the Sedins. Is a rebound to his previous standard of play, and hopefully even beyond it thereafter, an absolute guarantee? Of course not. But it’s a lot more likely than him all of a sudden losing all of his mojo thanks to a couple tough offseasons. The Monstars didn’t get him. The talent is still there.

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So, don’t write Pettersson off yet, either. The next chapter in his story is about to be written, and we’ve got a hunch that it’s going to be a thriller.