How the medical ramifications of a wrist injury explain Elias Pettersson’s passive start

Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Liu
1 year ago
Elias Pettersson’s wrist issues are well documented. After a seemingly innocuous play against the Jets on March 1st, 2021, Pettersson dealt with lingering problems throughout the remainder of the calendar year.
After nearly an entire year, it finally seems that Petey is getting back to his normal self. The Swede is putting pucks into the back of the net with his usual confidence now, something that was missing during the rough start to the season.
There were a lot more factors that played into his season-starting slump. New and seemingly-defective sticks, missing preseason, and the Canucks’ poor performance as a unit all had impacts on his play. However, here’s a look at how Pettersson’s wrist injury contributed to his lack of production.
An important part of determining what sort of injury Pettersson sustained is through the mechanism of injury. This looks at what happened on the ice and what sort of forces were applied to the body when an injury happens. Luckily in his postseason presser, Pettersson gives the exact play that started it all.
“I have the puck on the blue line. I mishandle it, I’m gonna reach the puck and then my stick hits Nate Thompson’s shin pad. And then my wrist kind of whipped off his shin pad, so I like hyperextended my wrist,” he said during his 2021 season-end presser.
Typically, a wrist should have 70 degrees of extension, where the hand and fingers are moving up to the sky. Anything beyond that is considered hyperextension. It seemed like a nothing play on the ice, and indeed Pettersson would go on to record a goal and assist in the 4-0 win. He would also suit up for the next game against Toronto. However, Pettersson would be shut down for the year soon after.
When looking at the level of sprain that he suffered, Pettersson most likely didn’t go beyond a grade 2. A grade 1 sprain means that the ligaments and soft tissue are stretched out, while a grade 2 sprain means that there might be some partial tearing. Since no surgery was required, a grade 3 sprain — full rupture of the ligament — did not occur.
In both cases, rest is what is needed. According to May DD, et al. (2020), the recovery time for a moderate wrist sprain can take around six to eight weeks. For Pettersson, what that meant is that he didn’t resume shooting pucks until July. After all, he described the pain as “like trying to shoot with a knife in my wrist.” Not exactly a pleasant sensation.
While it seems obvious that a wrist injury would impede a hockey player, in Pettersson’s case a hyperextended wrist is a little more sinister. Associated with wrist sprains are loss of range of motion or weakness and a loss of grip strength. Since it occurred on the hand lower on the stick, it meant that the hand Pettersson used to generate most of the power on his shot was the most impacted by the injury.
Biomechanically, extension of the wrist in the lower hand is involved with numerous movements outside of shooting. Take receiving a pass, for instance. Opening the blade of the stick to receive the puck involves opening up the wrist, which puts it into extension. From the weight of the puck and absorbing the impact, it would impact the ligaments responsible for keeping the wrist from hyperextension, which in turn, are the ones affected by hyperextension.
Another example of wrist extension in hockey can be seen in stickhandling. It is an essential motion in hockey, where the wrists rotate in flexion and extension. Deking is another crucial aspect of Pettersson’s game, and with how he would have to open his wrist for a move such as toe-drag, there is a possibility that his existing injury would hamper his effectiveness on that end.
Pettersson insisted that he was at 100% coming into the season. In February however, he revealed that “coming into the season it was a little weird. I still had my wrist taped.” Normally, wrist taping for hyperextension involves taping it into flexion. This is when the wrist moves downwards and the fingers point towards the ground. What this tape job does is that it secures the wrist to prevent additional damage. What it also does is prevent Pettersson from extending his wrist very much.
It would explain his reluctance to shoot early on. Especially in his shot mechanics, Pettersson likes to bring the puck back far to load up the trigger. The energy transfer of his quick release means that there is a lot of strain put on the lower wrist, where the stick flexes. In the moment of the shot, his lower hand leads by extending, which is a motion in that Pettersson would feel pain. That, coupled with the limited range of how far he could extend his wrist would lead to a slower shot compared to his first season.
In elite athletes, every minuscule margin makes a big difference. When recovering from injury, it doesn’t end with the ligament healing. So while the recovery time may be six to eight weeks, regaining the level of performance that is needed to play in the NHL would take longer. This involves strengthening as well as re-establishing the movement pattern of a wrist shot. And for what many consider to be his best weapon, Pettersson would definitely need the additional time to get his shot back to where he wants it.
With how his wrist injury would affect his shot and deking, it makes sense that Pettersson would be a bit more pass-happy than normal. To begin with, the Swede has exceptional vision to go with an impressive hockey IQ. Fans have seen many great set-up passes as if he has eyes on the back of his head. It’s also a motion that shouldn’t bring too much discomfort, with limited extension of the wrist involved.
Pettersson’s playmaking ability is something that makes him elite, but it also comes because there is a threat of a shot. If Petey is reluctant to pull the trigger, then it makes the life of a defender easier just to take away the pass option. Since he was still trying to find comfort with his wrist, it makes sense that he struggled to be as effective offensively early on.
“I think I told Petey especially to shoot the puck,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau post game on Saturday night, a game in which Pettersson scored two goals. “I mean, he’s got such a great shot… and he doesn’t use it. He wants to be a playmaker most of the time, and when he shoots the puck they go in. The second one was a perfect example of how his shot is electric and the first one — when he keeps shooting, it finds ways to get in because he’s got such a good release.”
Luckily for Canucks fans, it seems that Pettersson is getting back to his usual grip-it-and-rip-it self. Since the start of February, he’s had 23 points in 20 games. It’s an injury that he has to manage carefully, spending a couple of games out for maintenance here and there, but Pettersson seems to be more than up for the challenge. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot more snipes in the near future.

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