It’s difficult to picture what exactly Vancouver Canucks hockey looks like without an elite Swedish dynamo, or two, leading the pack forward. It’s been decades since we’ve even been forced to contemplate the image.
Look to the club’s top three all-time scorers and that blue-and-yellow vein running through the heart of Canucks hockey is difficult to miss — just as Markus Naslund’s near-decade of sensational sniping wound to a close, Henrik and Daniel Sedin broke out with the first of many elite campaigns. And in the very first season the club was forced to take the ice without the twins’ magic in tow, after the MVP nods and the scoring titles were all on the shelf, we saw the next Swedish phenom arrive at Rogers Arena ready to dominate.
A century of games into his NHL career, Elias Pettersson has done little else but that. After claiming the 2019 Calder Trophy, he’s already the premier name on a Canucks squad stocked with young talent, and pushing for a spot among the game’s very best offensive gems.
The 21-year-old earned his 100th career point Thursday night against Carolina, tallying the milestone marker in typical Pettersson fashion — game-winner, defenders closing in, a stray stick on the ice to navigate around, concluding with a flash of the hands and a ridiculous top-shelf backhand.
Anyone who’s taken in more than a few shifts of the young Canuck doing his thing was likely unfazed by the tally. It’s par for the course for Pettersson at this point, with his pile of highlight clips already a towering stack. But with the Sundsvall, Sweden native officially into triple digits in career scoring, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating everything he’s been able to showcase through his first 103 games in the big leagues.
With 100 points worth of impressive play for us to dig into, let’s take a closer look at the most impressive aspects of Pettersson’s skill-set so far:
There’s no question one of Pettersson’s most overtly dominant abilities is setting up his teammates. The combination of exceptional hands, elite vision and an innate understanding of what’s playing out on the ice — that sixth-sense awareness of knowing where every player is, has been and will be — makes Pettersson a lethal passer.
It’s one thing to deliver a crisp tape-to-tape dish on the breakout, or to float a perfect saucer pass cross-ice on the power play, but then you have plays like this:
What’s there to even say? The ability to read and disrupt the opposing play is impressive enough, as is swarming the defender to strip him of the puck, but tripped up and sent to the ice, Pettersson still has the awareness to know his linemate is streaking to the cage, and the hands to hook the puck softly into the slot for him — from his knees. Absurd.
That’s only one aspect of the wide array of playmaking abilities Pettersson brings to the table, though. On the far other end of the spectrum is this one from No. 40 against Colorado:
Again, pick whichever aspect of the play most impresses you here — having the touch to properly pull off this Sedin-esque bank pass to Boeser is one thing, having the confidence to try it at all this early into his NHL tenure is another. But it’s the fact that Pettersson picks up the puck and makes the decision to try this in about one second that lays bare his otherworldly understanding of what’s going on out there.
There’s one particular aspect of playmaking we tend to see time and time again from the very best in the league — the willingness to practice patience, to suss things out and allow the game to come to them.
Just like Pettersson had no qualms with trying that risky bank pass as a rookie, the young pivot hasn’t been shy about taking his time with the puck, knowing he’ll find the lane when it presents itself.
He’s a defensive nightmare, willing to out-wait blue-liners and find teammates seemingly anywhere in the zone as soon as the opposition flinches. And that poise with the puck only amplifies the danger of every other skill on this list.
There are two sides to the coin when it comes to the impact of the patience mentioned above. Give Pettersson time and space to make plays and he’ll eventually find the minuscule avenue through which to thread the needle. Rush him, and he’ll make you look like this:
Stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber recently spoke to Sportsnet to break down the top young handlers in the game, and it was Pettersson who topped his list. But it isn’t simply the skill with which he pulls off flashy moves, according to Barber, it’s when he chooses to do so.
“You can be a great stickhandler, but if you don’t know where and when to apply the right skills, you are ineffective — this is where Pettersson thrives,” Barber said of the Canucks centreman. “He has such a great sense for the game and is constantly shifting around on the ice to pose the greatest threat. He can break ankles simply by receiving a puck, rotating his hips and loading a puck.
“Every NHL player can do those skills, but the way his body language suggests what he’s going to do is on another level. He’s mastered the art of deception.”
That deception has become foundational in the dynamic, creative game we see out on the ice in today’s NHL, and No. 40’s got it down to a science.
But like his playmaking ability, his stickhandling isn’t limited to dealing with oncoming danger. He’s just as willing to engage himself, navigating into traffic to pull defenders in and create space for teammates, to try to draw calls, or simply to see if he can work his way into a shooting lane closer to the cage.
The one thing that makes every skill here as effective as they’ve been for the young Canuck is the fact that they all work in conjunction with one another.
Try to defend him as he wades into traffic and he’s got a powerful enough shot (we’ll get to that in a moment) and a dangerous ability to find his teammates that he becomes a handful to contain.
There’s one facet of Pettersson’s skill-set that sets him apart, though. One that separates him from other similarly skilled stickhandlers in the game: that blistering shot.
Imagine, each time No. 40 hit a new level, debuting in a new league, the first time defenders realized they had to deal with that shot. It’s almost comical. After everything else — the dangling, the passing, the eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head vision — the fact that Pettersson also has the bomb that he does takes him from being simply a potentially elite scorer to a future contender for a place among the top five names in the game.
There’s a uniqueness to the way he shoots, too.
“He’s more of an old-school (shooter),” former NHLer Colby Armstrong said of Pettersson recently, noting the Canucks pivot is not often one for the new-school pull-and-drag style of sniping.
“It’s like Wendel Clark-style, back foot to front foot and he releases it from there. (He’s) like Bruce Banner — he’s a small, slight guy, 175 pounds. He turns into the Incredible Hulk, and that’s what he looks like when he gets on the shot.
“And I think what separates him from (Auston) Matthews is his ability to really hammer the puck on the one-timer. For a small, slight guy, he turns green when he’s setting up for that one-timer, and throws everything into it.”
In Rory Boylen and Ryan Dixon’s recent look at the top 50 NHLers of 2019, they offered another all-time scorer whose shooting mechanics seem echoed in Pettersson’s game.
“People are loathe to compare anyone to Wayne Gretzky — and I’m not comparing (Pettersson) to Wayne Gretzky in terms of where he’s going to land, his place in the game, or the impact he’s going to have in his career or next season. But specifically the way he shoots the puck as a slight guy,” Dixon said.
“Picture Gretzky coming down the ice against the Calgary Flames, that overtime winner, that was the vintage Wayne Gretzky. For a guy who probably weighed 178 soaking wet, he could just rifle it. And it was accurate, it was a great slapper, and Petterson’s got almost like a carbon copy of that.”
Catch Pettersson in action Saturday night at 7 p.m. PT / 10 p.m. ET as his Canucks take on the San Jose Sharks on Sportsnet and Sportsnet NOW.