Elias Pettersson’s continued evolution into an elite two-way centre is key to the Canucks becoming a contender
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
5 months ago
Even as the 2022/23 season threatens to come crashing down around their ears, good things are happening for the Vancouver Canucks.
Good things, and important things.
The team as a whole has decidedly under-impressed, but if there is one individual who has shown well, it’s at least one of the players who would seem to have the most to prove: Elias Pettersson. After a Jekyll-and-Hyde 2021/22 campaign, Pettersson came into training camp with plenty of question marks attached to his name, and he appears ready to replace them with exclamation marks.
Pettersson’s three goals and six points through four games speak loudly enough for themselves. Harder to notice, but perhaps deserving of even more attention, is the continued evolution of Pettersson’s defensive game. And it’s not just an instance of personal growth — it’s something that is going to be key to the Canucks becoming a long-term contender.
Before we get to all that, however, let’s pause to consider the concept of the elite two-way centre.
The gold standard for this sort of player is, of course, Patrice Bergeron of the execrated Boston Bruins. He might just be the greatest two-way centre of all time — and we are not here to suggest that Pettersson is on track to become the next Patrice Bergeron. Not yet, anyway.
But Bergeron is not the only elite two-way centre in the league. They’re scattered all over the rosters of — notably — the NHL’s cadre of true contending teams.
Aleksander Barkov and Elias Lindholm were the runners-up for the Selke Trophy last season. Ryan O’Reilly was a regular nominee before them and two-way-centreed his team to a surprise Stanley Cup not all that long ago.
Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, and Sidney Crosby did the job for their own mini-dynasties — and Kopitar and Crosby can both still do it.
Names like Auston Matthews and Sebastian Aho represent the next generation of those elite in either end — theirs, and Elias Pettersson’s, too?
The point to be made here, before we get back to Pettersson, is that elite two-way centres are one of the most invaluable assets in hockey. And it’s no great mystery as to why that is. Such players are able to pull down huge minutes against the best skaters the opposition has to offer and still come out on top most times.
Elite two-way centres don’t just shut down their opponents, they overwhelm them. They don’t just defend, they parry. These sorts of players control the ice for somewhere between a third and half of any given game, and because of that they seem to have a remarkable ability to almost singlehandedly transform their teams into contenders as they enter their primes. (And they usually age well, too.)
If Pettersson is truly approaching that stratosphere, it’s undeniably a good thing for the Canucks and their hopes of one day competing.
So far, so good. Pettersson has been the Canucks’ best defensive forward by leaps and bounds thus far in 2022/23, in addition to also being their best offensive forward.
Let’s get to the NaturalStatTrick boxscores.
In the season-opening game against the Edmonton Oilers, matchup duties were split fairly evenly among the Canucks’ top-three centres.
JT Miller played the most against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but infamously wound up being on the ice for all five goals against. Bo Horvat chipped in and faired better, but only spent 3:57 of even-strength time against McDavid and even less against Draisaitl.
Compare that with Pettersson, who played 5:16 at evens against McDavid and 3:58 against Draisaitl. Not only did Pettersson not allow a goal during that time, he and his linemates held the Oilers to just a single shot with McDavid on the ice, and two with Draisaitl. Pettersson would wind up with a 70.00% Corsi while sharing the ice with McDavid.
The Philadelphia game is harder to break down because of the Flyers’ lack of star forwards. Pettersson’s matchups were all over the place in this one, and he wound up playing the most even-strength minutes against, of all people, Nicolas Deslauriers. Still, Pettersson controlled the game as best he could, winding up with no even-strength goals against again, and some eye-popping underlying analytics. Pettersson’s Corsi against Deslauriers? Try 80%, up a full ten points on his anti-McDavid performance.
Then came the Washington Capitals.
In this game, coach Bruce Boudreau clearly started to lean on Pettersson and his two-way abilities a little bit harder. Pettersson pulled down 7:48 of even-strength ice-time against Anthony Mantha, 6:34 against TJ Oshie, 6:18 against Evgeny Kuznetsov, and 4:25 against Alex Ovechkin.
Again, the fancy stats were undeniably tilted in Pettersson’s favour. Heck, even the non-fancy ones were. Pettersson played nearly half the game against the Washington top-six and held them to just two even-strength shots while he was on the ice. Just two!
Finally, in the third period, Pettersson surrendered his first even-strength goal against of the season, an Ovechkin goal that put the Capitals up 6-4. For those keeping score at home, that’s nine periods of play before Pettersson got scored against at evens, and it took the greatest goal scorer in the history of the sport to do it.
It’s the kind of defensive performance that would stand out on any team. On a team where JT Miller is on the ice for nine straight goals against to open the year, it stands out more.
We’ll cop to it: this article was mostly written before Tuesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and Pettersson did surrender the game-tying 3-3 goal to Johnny Gaudreau. That went along with a goal and an assist and came after another otherwise superb defensive effort, but it still wasn’t ideal.
Then again, think about what it says about the increasing trust that Bruce Boudreau is placing in Pettersson that he was out there defending a third period one-goal lead against a guy they call “Johnny Hockey.” When the final minute of regulation came not too long thereafter, it was the Podkolzin-Pettersson-Höglander line on the ice, masterfully controlling the flow of play and safely seeing the Canucks to overtime…which Pettersson then proceeded to very nearly win with a shot off the post.
For the first time this season, Pettersson was deployed against Columbus as the 1C, pulling down 21:25 in ice-time. In keeping with the theme of this article, 10:12 of that ice-time was even-strength minutes spent matched up against Gaudreau. We hate to invoke the name again, but that’s Bergeron-level deployment, plain and simple.
Heck, on that note, we almost forgot about Pettersson’s penalty killing prowess. He’s only killed a grand total of about 70 minutes of penalties thus far in his career, but he’s also only given up six power play goals against in that time. He’s already on pace to nearly double his PK minutes in 2022/23 over the previous year.
Should Pettersson continue down this path of development, one has to imagine that he’s got Selke Trophy votes in his near-future. And if the Canucks are wise, they’ll do everything in their power to keep pushing him in this direction. Give Pettersson more matchups, tougher deployments, and greater responsibility. He’s clearly ready for it, and more opportunity might be all that he needs to begin achieving elite results over the long-term.
No matter what else happens with the team around him, Pettersson becoming an elite two-way centre is going to bring the Canucks closer to contention. Such players can often carry franchises on their backs for a good, long while, just as Pettersson has already been doing in the early goings of 2022/23.
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