Success can do funny things to the discourse surrounding the Vancouver Canucks. Whereas the complaints that fans had in the early stages of the 2021/22 season were numerous and wide-ranging – and with good reason – things have been rolling pretty darn smoothly since coach Bruce Boudreau took over.
And while that’s undoubtedly lightened the mood of the team and the fanbase alike, it has also focused a lot of the lingering negativity onto the one or two components of the team that aren’t rolling quite yet. Chief among them: the still-struggling Elias Pettersson.
It’s got to the point where the subject of trading Pettersson has become a near-daily topic, cropping into every post-game thread or radio call-in show in the market for the past couple of weeks. Check the comment thread in any odd article on this site, and you can probably find at least someone spouting off about the need to deal Pettersson in the immediate future.
Well, you know what they say about opinions.
The fact of the matter is that there could not be a worse time for the Canucks to put Pettersson on the trade market, and that interim GM Jim Rutherford and Co. would be foolish to even consider such a move right now.
The age-old mantra of “Buy low, sell high”
First and foremost on the list of reasons to not trade Pettersson is one of the oldest sales mantras on the books: buy low, sell high.
It shouldn’t cause any real controversy to state that Pettersson’s personal value has never been lower. After being drafted fifth overall in 2017, Pettersson put up a record-breaking Draft+1 season in the SHL, and then he arrived in the NHL for a Calder-winning rookie campaign.
He followed that debut up with a near-PPG 2019/20 season, capped off by an actually-PPG three-round playoff run. He struggled at the outset of the truncated 2021 season, only to round it out with PPG play the rest of the way.
And then 2021/22 struck, and it all seemed to fall apart for Pettersson.
Make no mistake: every team who might theoretically put in an offer for Pettersson this year is going to try to undervalue him based on his recent play. They’ll be putting in lowballs, but they’ll be doing so with the expectation that Pettersson will rebound to his previous standard of work.
That’s how “buying low” works. Selling low, on the other hand, is not typically recommended. But that’s what the Canucks would be doing if they were to trade Pettersson now. We’ve all already seen that his value can be much, much higher than it is at the present moment – so why cash in now?
The injury factor
Many of the renewed calls to trade Pettersson stem from the fact that Boudreau’s hiring truly seems to have turned around the fortunes of everyone on the team except Pettersson. Even those others who were visibly struggling under Travis Green – Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Tyler Myers, Jason Dickinson – have made strides under the new head coach, and that’s made Pettersson’s continued struggles stand out all the more.
But what many are forgetting is that Pettersson also has a more clear-cut and obvious reason for his on-ice strife than any of those other players. Whereas their issues could all be primarily traced back to coaching, Pettersson’s are undoubtedly linked to the wrist injury that shut down his 2021 season and greatly shortened his offseason.
That, combined with contract negotiations that kept him out of training camp, made for easily the most disjointed summer of Pettersson’s young career. Where he used previous offseasons to take bounding steps forward, Pettersson had to use the entirety of summer 2021 just to get back to normal – and he’s not all the way back to normal quite yet.
If the Canucks can afford to be patient enough to see if the lingering effects of the injury wear off – and they can absolutely afford to be that patient – they’d be remiss not to.
The importance of a true 1C
Following his first two standout NHL seasons, Pettersson was anointed as the Canucks’ number one center, making him one of only a handful of players in franchise history to truly earn that distinction.
Forget potential; Pettersson performed as a 1C in each of his NHL campaigns prior to this one. He should be thought of, at the very least, as a player with 1C capability, even if he’s not showing it at the present moment.
And 1Cs are vitally important to any team hoping to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Canucks fans shouldn’t need a reminder of that – their team has been searching on-and-off for 1Cs for much of their franchise history. Pettersson’s current career PPG of 0.85, for the record, still beats out that of Henrik Sedin, even with this year factored in.
Some will point out that the Canucks seem to have stumbled onto another 1C in the form of JT Miller, and if so, that’s wonderful.
But such individuals should also keep in mind that Miller is already 28, is playing way over and above his career pace, and will be in line for a hefty contract in the summer of 2023.
Having two 1Cs is a luxury that the Canucks would love to exploit, but if they’re going to zero in on one person as their long-term first line center solution going forward, it has to be Pettersson. His age, contract control, and upward potential all contribute to that determination – and it’s a little too late to go diving back for other options.
The team’s timeline of competitiveness
No one is expecting Rutherford and Co. to oversee another rebound. There’s far too much talent in place right now to justify a full-on tear-down – and that makes acquiring another 1C all but impossible.
If the Canucks were in line to draft Shane Wright this year or Connor Bedard next year, that would be one thing, but they’re not. They’ll have to really strike it rich to nab anyone even resembling a potential 1C over the next couple of drafts, and even then the odds of that player being ready to join the current core anytime soon are long.
The Canucks are going to be making at least an attempt to compete with this core of Boeser, Horvat, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko, Conor Garland, Vasily Podkolzin, Nils Höglander, and more.
If they can somehow fit Miller into that mix long-term, that will be a wonderful added bonus.
But the only 1C they can reliably count on being a part of this picture is still Pettersson.
It’s too late to cash out and head back to the draft for someone else.
The best bet by far is to resuscitate, not replace, Pettersson.
The age curve of superstars
Hockey fans have perhaps been spoiled by a steady stream of generational superstars, who have each entered the league ready-to-go and have not struggled for a single day of their careers.
Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, the list goes on.
But most players encounter at least a little bit of the doldrums during their playing days, and even most superstars are not immune. In fact, early-career struggles are somewhat common for pending elite talents.
Comparisons to Nate MacKinnon’s development curve have been thrown around a lot in Pettersson trade discussions, and with good reason. Like Pettersson, MacKinnon entered the league with a dynamite rookie campaign, but then he regressed from there, putting up three progressively worse seasons in a row from 2014 to 2017.
Many in the Avalanche fanbase discussed trading MacKinnon while he still had his draft pedigree, while others advised caution and patience.
Then, in 2017/18, MacKinnon exploded for 97 points, and hasn’t looked back since.
Expecting Pettersson to suddenly turn into a MacKinnon-quality scorer may be a bridge too far, but the comparisons are there to be made. And MacKinnon is far from the only highly-touted rookie to experience regression early on in his career, only to overcome it and step into true superstardom.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Johnny Gaudreau, Miller himself; the NHL scoring leaderboard is littered with examples, some of whom aren’t even named John!
The aforementioned Sedin twins are, of course, the gold standard for being patient with one’s talented projects. They didn’t truly break out until their 30s, and people wanted to trade them beforehand, too.
Really, it makes some sense. Most players try to just survive at the NHL level, but a superstar tries to dominate – and that can take time to figure out. It certainly isn’t easy. But Pettersson has shown that he can do it in the past, and he deserves patience as he tries to figure out how to do it again.
That patience will benefit both he and the team that avoids trading him just before his career really takes off.
Trading potential superstars is almost always a losing proposition
The fact of the matter is that it is almost impossible to trade a potential superstar and come out on top. The disparity in talent between the league’s elite and its everyday jobbers is just too great.
Seriously, find one example of a team trading a true 1C-type and getting back reasonable value. You might have to go all the way back to the Lindros blockbuster to find it. It just doesn’t happen.
The Jack Eichel situation is a great example. He’s a near-generational talent, and what did the Buffalo Sabres get back for him? A late first round pick. A middle-six player. A prospect who, at best, becomes a much lesser 1C.
And really, that’s about as good as they could have done. Truly blue-chip prospects are never traded. Any other superstar offered up in return will come with their own set of flaws. Large future packages will inevitably not turn out exactly the way you wanted.
The best way for a team to compete is still to draft and retain its own talent. Shortchanging that via a short-sided trade is almost always counterproductive, and almost always a losing proposition. It is definitely a path to be avoided.
The playoff factor
If there’s one component of Pettersson’s game that doesn’t get brought up nearly enough, it’s his playoff track record.
Yes, that track record is only a single season long. But it’s also three rounds, 17 games, and 18 points worth of track record, and that’s a lot more than most players Pettersson’s age have to offer.
Playoff success is, ultimately, the greatest measure of an individual player’s value. Winning in the playoffs is, after all, what it’s all about.
Any player without a similar history of postseason performance will have to face doubts about their playoff readiness until they change that. Take Conor Garland, for example. He’s been electric for the Canucks so far in the regular season, but he’s never experienced NHL playoff hockey. How will his game hold up when the going gets tough? We just don’t know!
What we do know, however, is how Pettersson responded to the increased difficulty of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
He faced down an ultra-physical Minnesota team that targeted him, and did not bend. He beat back the defending Cup champions. And he stood tall against the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that greatly outclassed the Canucks on paper.
Any team thinking about trading for Pettersson is going to be salivating at that playoff statline, and telling themselves that that’s the “real” Pettersson. The Canucks and their fans should think similarly.
Pettersson is ALREADY rebounding
Lastly, while the Boudreau Effect ™ has been less pronounced in Pettersson than it has been in his teammates, his play, too, has improved under the new head coach. Even if the numbers aren’t there quite yet, Pettersson is already rebounding – and starting to pick up steam.
Since Boudreau took over, Pettersson has five points in nine games. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s an improvement.
Even better, his possession and chance-generating stats have been increasing, too, and he’s starting to generate a little bit of chemistry with a new linemate in Garland. The confidence seems to be slowly returning. The timing isn’t there yet, but it’s coming.
In other words, the Canucks don’t really have to wait around for the Pettersson bounceback, because it’s already happening.
Now, they’re free to just sit back and see how far back he bounces – whether it be all the way back to his previous standard of play or, ideally, well beyond it.
That is, of course, as long as they don’t trade him in the meantime.
Which they really, really shouldn’t.
But you knew that already.