SUNRISE, FLA. – This is the Elias-In-Wonderland tour. The Vancouver Canucks are along for the ride.
Travelling as a National Hockey League player at the dawn of his career, 19-year-old Elias Pettersson is in Florida for the first time. He is seeing NHL rinks for the first time, playing against NHL stars for the first time.
Thursday in Tampa, Pettersson faced Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. He was defended by Victor Hedman. Saturday against the Florida Panthers, he’ll see Aleksander Barkov. Tuesday in Pittsburgh, Pettersson will face centres Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Then he could faceoff next Thursday in Winnipeg against Mark Scheifele.
“Of course, I think of who I’m playing against,” Pettersson said Friday after the Swedish teenager practised in Sunrise, a short drive west of the beach where the Canucks are staying in Fort Lauderdale. “Growing up, I saw them on TV a lot. It’s fun to meet all those players (because) I test myself, and it’s always fun to play against the best players in the world and the best centres in the world.”
When he says “meet,” he means to play against them. Pettersson hasn’t really met a lot of opponents yet although Swedish countryman Anton Stralman spoke to him on the ice in Tampa.
“He said: ‘Hey, Elias, not this time,’” Pettersson said. “I don’t know what it was but it was fun.”
Stralman was wrong; it was Pettersson’s time on Thursday. He bounced in the tying goal of what turned into a surprising 4-1 Canuck victory.
Through four games, Pettersson leads Vancouver with four goals and seven points. He also leads all NHL rookies in scoring and is about the most exciting thing to hit the Canucks since Pavel Bure rocketed in from Russia nearly three decades ago.
Not only is Pettersson driving the Canucks’ attack, he is driving their energy.
“It’s always good to have good, young guys on a team because it sparks the team,” 32-year-old centre Jay Beagle explained. “It brings that youthfulness into the group. Everything is kind of new, so even if you’ve been around for a while, you see it through their eyes. That’s cool.”
“Seeing him experience everything for the first time, you remember how cool some of these places are and appreciate everything we get to do,” veteran Brandon Sutter, 29, said. “Game days are pretty straight forward and have a different feel. But days like today, where we have a practice, we’ll go back to the hotel, hang out or go for a walk on the beach.
“It takes you back in time. I remember my first road trip when I was 19 (with the Carolina Hurricanes), we stayed at the beach in L.A. for four or five days and I just remember thinking: This is cool – a little different than the bus in junior. We had a day off and rode bikes up and down the boardwalk. And then we went for sushi. I had never really had sushi. I’ll always remember that.”
Sutter is from Red Deer, Alta. Pettersson is from Sundsvall, Sweden. He has had sushi. But nearly everything else is new.
“It’s all new places for me, meeting new teams, seeing new cities,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun. I’m going to enjoy it as much as possible.”
If this six-game road trip is making an impression on Pettersson, at least he’s also making an impression on others. He has probably been the Canucks’ best forward.
“There’s a lot that has impressed me,” Beagle said. “You knew he was a special player; there’s not too many guys in the league who can step in and play the way he does.
“The thing that impresses me is he’s really good with the puck, really smart, but he’s also really good without the puck. That’s something that is usually learned in the NHL after a while, but he has that at the start, which is incredible. A lot of people see the hands and his skill with the puck. But for me, it’s the little details I always notice, especially for the young guys. I try to help them along, but he doesn’t need much help.”
“His composure out on the ice and how he’s been able to do while getting tough matchups (on the road) and still being able to produce is pretty impressive,” Canuck Bo Horvat said. “You hear about the skills and you hear how good he is with the puck, but away from the puck is what I’m most impressed about.”
Coach Travis Green said he tried to protect Pettersson in matchups in the Canucks’ first two games, home and away against the Calgary Flames, but hasn’t worried about the rookie since then.
“A: it’s harder on the road,” Green said of matchups. “And B: I want to play him more.”
Pettersson led Canuck forwards with 19:10 of ice time during Tuesday’s 5-3 loss in Carolina. He logged 16:48 in Tampa, where he extended his points streak to four games. It would probably be longer, but Pettersson has played only four NHL games.
“He just goes and plays,” Sutter said. “The biggest thing we kind of talked about in here the other day is some of the things we’ve seen him do without the puck. You can tell he wants to win. He’s got a lot of good traits. A lot of us are pretty happy with him for sure.”
• Winger Antoine Roussel, the free-agent winger who hasn’t yet played for the Canucks due to a concussion, practised Friday on the top line with Horvat and Brock Boeser and could face the Panthers. To make room on the 23-man roster, the Canucks would have to waive a player. Brendan Leipsic and Tyler Motte are the most likely candidates to be re-assigned to the Utica Comets.