Prior to this year, Elias Pettersson hadn’t attended a Vancouver Canucks Training Camp since January of 2020, and that one — sandwiched in between two pandemic-shortened seasons — wasn’t even a proper Training Camp.
The last time that Pettersson got to skate into Day One of Canucks Camp, after a full and regularly-scheduled offseason, was in 2019, heading into his sophomore year.
In other words, it’s been a while, but Pettersson is here now, and he’s looking more ready than he ever has before. That’s one of just many reasons to suspect that we’re about to see yet another breakout performance from the 23-year-old center, and perhaps his official launch into elite status.
Elias Pettersson’s 2021/22 season was hard to define. On the one hand, it was a career year! Pettersson set new personal standards for games played, goals, and points. On the other hand, taken as a whole, it was also well below Pettersson’s usual standard of play. He finished with a .85 PPG, up a little from the .81 he put up in 2020/21, but way down from the .97 of his sophomore campaign.
But taking Pettersson’s 2021/22 performance as a whole is complicated. Truly, for him, it was a tale of two seasons, and hopefully it was the latter of the two that is now serving as the prologue for 2022/23.
As we mentioned at the outset, Pettersson skipped Training Camp last year. For the most part, that was due to ongoing contract negotiations that did not wrap up until October 1, a mere week ahead of opening night.
And while all that financial back-and-forth was going on, Pettersson’s summer was already an atypical one. He continued to struggle through and recover from the wrist injury that shut down his previous season. That left him with limited training and conditioning options, and he would later admit that his recovery was not complete when he hit the ice in October — nor for a couple of months thereafter.
So, with a less-than-restful summer behind him, a lingering injury still bothering him, and no Training Camp ahead of him, Pettersson entered the 2021/22 season several steps behind, and it showed. He posted just 11 points in 23 games through the first two months of the season, and the eye-test, if anything, reflected even more poorly on his performance. Pettersson’s timing was off, he was falling all over the ice, and he looked frequently discombobulated. This was not the same player who once bravely grabbed the franchise torch from the Sedins as a rookie and ran with it.
Pettersson’s troubles were no doubt intensified by the rest of the team struggling around him, but when Bruce Boudreau took over in early December, things got a little better for Pettersson, but not really. His six points through 10 games was a statistical improvement, but it looked pretty measly in the midst of a Canucks team on a massive winning streak.
The “real” Elias Pettersson (with no shade intended toward the other Elias Pettersson) didn’t show up again until halfway through January.
From January 16 until the end of the regular season, Pettersson played 43 more games, and put up 51 more points, good for a PPG of 1.19.
That production ranked Pettersson at 23rd overall in the league over the same period. It may have only been for half a season, but it definitely qualified as “elite” play and production. That alone is reason enough for some optimism heading into 2022/23. After finding himself again, Pettersson went on to play at this level for four straight months, so why couldn’t he just continue where he left off?
But hockey fans learn pretty early on in life that the answer to “why not” is usually “plenty of reasons.” Fortunately, there are also plenty of other reasons to suspect that Pettersson will only continue his ascension as this next regular season kicks off.
The first reasons have already been hinted at, and they are circumstantial. Pettersson got better once he got over his slow start and his wrist injury. This year? No slow start and full injury. Pettersson got a full summer of healthy training in, and now he’s getting his first full Training Camp in three years.
And he’s looking good. All accounts from those on the ground at Canucks Training Camp, including our own CanucksArmy crew, are that Pettersson appears to have taken yet another step forward. The shakiness that defined the opening months of 2020/21 are gone, replaced not just with steadiness, but with a noticeable drive.
That’s backed up by Pettersson’s words off the ice. He spoke openly about his previous struggles, but described them as a learning experience that he was grateful for — and thoroughly over-and-done-with.
“I mean, we can be honest, my start last season wasn’t the way I wanted to start. And I was just — I’ve grown from that and learned like why it happened, and then why I had the second half of the season, why I played like that. It was basically two different mes out there and I was just playing with a lot more confidence in the second half. So I’m somewhat happy I went through it, because I know how I got out of it, if that makes sense.”
Instead of taking the opportunity to make excuses, Pettersson instead doubled down on the notion that his 2022/23 destiny is in his own hands.
“Last season I learned a lot that no matter how good I played the first two seasons, I gotta have that same hunger…I was training harder coming into last season, but I was just letting things get inside my head…[This year] I had a good summer training, didn’t really go on any vacation. I was just working out all summer trying to prepare myself as much as possible… I’m always trying to take steps every season and I’ve just felt I’ve matured a lot from last season.”
That all sounds pretty darn encouraging from where we’re standing. But wise words and summer workouts will only get you so far. Thankfully, there are other factors at play, and they’re all encouraging, too.
There’s luck, for one. Pettersson definitely had a bad run of it last year. From October through the midway point in January, Pettersson shot with just a 7.6% success rate. That’s fairly low for most forwards, but for Pettersson, it’s less than half of his career average. He hit four posts during that time, most on the Canucks.
From January 16 onward, Pettersson shot at 23.0%. That’s high, and maybe unsustainably so, but it’s a lot closer to his usual standard than 7.6%. For the record, he dinged nine more posts and crossbars over that same period, for an unlucky total of 13 on the year.
The on-ice shooting percentage of Pettersson and his linemates was only a cumulative 11.5%, which is also the lowest of his career. The odds say it will rebound, and that means more assists in addition to more goals.
Speaking of linemates, Pettersson has a lot going for him in that regard, too. Last season, his line seemed to be on a constant rotation. He only spent 11.3% of his season with his most common linemates, JT Miller and Brock Boeser, and less with every other combination.
From Dobber’s Frozen Tools
This season, things will be different. Boudreau has stated that he wants some consistency and chemistry to develop with his lines, and he’s starting that process early in Training Camp. Pettersson can, at the very least, count on spending longer than a tenth of the season on a single line.
Nevermind that those linemates should just be, in general, a little better. Pettersson’s linemates were all pretty talented last season, but the Canucks’ top-nine is now absolutely loaded up on talent. Whoever he plays with will be a definitively top-nine-quality player, and probably a definitively top-six player. No more spending large chunks of the year with Jason Dickinson, Nic Petan, or Alex Chiasson riding shotgun.
Even those not on Pettersson’s line should benefit his overall production. With the Canucks running one of the best center cores in the league, opponents will have no choice but to split up their defensive coverage. Do your best D-zone players go out against the Pettersson line, or do they match up with Miller? Either way, the other line benefits, and both will get their chances.
Plus, with Bo Horvat as the nominal 3C and a strong fourth line being constructed, Pettersson will have to deal with B-tier defensive duties of his own, at best. On either end of the ice, Pettersson’s deployment will become more favourable, and that obviously pays off on the scoresheet.
The last, but perhaps most important mitigating circumstance on Pettersson’s upcoming season, is his age. Pettersson will hit 24 about a month into the season. Every player ages and develops differently — just ask JT Miller — but, in general, Pettersson is entering his statistical prime. There are different models out there to choose from, but all seem to agree that peak production years are most likely to come between the ages of 23 and 28. Pettersson has all those years ahead of him, including this year.
Put differently, Pettersson is both in his prime and primed – primed to have the best season of his career to date, and primed to be recognized as belonging to the upper echelons of NHL talent.