VANCOUVER – There is some symmetry to this new era for the Vancouver Canucks.
Elias Pettersson was born seven months before Daniel and Henrik Sedin were drafted by the Canucks in 1999. The 19-year-old Swede now inherits Hank Sedin’s spot on the second line and first-unit power play after the twins retired last April, not quite a year after Vancouver drafted Pettersson.
Since Thomas Gradin and Lars Lindgren turned up on the West Coast in the 1970s, the Canucks have had a long, successful history with Swedish players, none better than the Sedin brothers. None better, so far.
Now along comes Pettersson, the record-setting teenager from Sundsvall who as a National Hockey League rookie perfectly represents where the Canucks are going.
"I’m probably going to be nervous, but I’m mostly excited about it," Pettersson said Tuesday about his NHL debut. "I have high expectations for myself and I want to be the best player I can be for the team. I want to bring that to the table every night."
When Vancouver opens its regular season Wednesday against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena, 12 of 18 skaters will have been with the Canucks for two or fewer seasons.
Only three players in the lineup arrived in Vancouver before general manager Jim Benning, four years ago, and the total Canuck seasons logged by defencemen Alex Edler (12 seasons) and Chris Tanev (nine) nearly match the combined tenure of the other 16 skaters (22 years).
"I feel old and I’m only 23 years old," first-line centre Bo Horvat said before the Canucks named him an alternate captain on Tuesday. "We are young, but I think we’re really motivated to prove ourselves. I’m excited as a player to see what’s going to happen."
"Just walking down the street, going for dinner, people come up to me and say how excited they are about the future of the team," third-year defenceman Troy Stecher, who grew up in Richmond, across the Fraser River from Vancouver, said of the new era. "There’s definitely a vibe around the city right now that people are excited about where we’re heading."
Where the Canucks are heading became a little murky during a 1-6 pre-season in which they were outscored 30-10. But there was renewed clarity this week when the team waived 29-year-old forward Sam Gagner, who has two seasons and $6.3-million left on the free agent contract he signed only one year ago, in order to keep prospects Nikolay Goldobin, 22, Tyler Motte, 23, and Brendan Leipsic, 24, on the NHL roster.
These players have all served time in the minors and are at critical stages in their careers. They may not turn out to be NHL regulars, but the Canucks believe they’ve earned the chance to prove they are.
The long-overdue rebuild in Vancouver is at full speed. The top two lines include Horvat, Goldobin, Pettersson and Brock Boeser, 21. The average age of the four forwards on the top power-play unit is 22.
Canucks fans – or at least those who post their views on the internet – have been demanding a rebuild on this scale. Which makes all the hostility and criticism over the team’s dismal pre-season more difficult to fathom. But then, the passionate market has never been accused of level-headedness.
There is a lot of pain with the hopefulness surrounding a team that has finished near the bottom of the NHL the last three seasons, and is picked by most odds-makers to finish last this year.
"We know what people are saying about us," Horvat said. "We know where people have us finishing. I think it does give us motivation. You see these teams last year (like the Vegas Golden Knights) that people said were going to finish at the bottom of the standings, and they ended up making the playoffs and having a great season. Anything can happen in this league."
What’s likely to happen is that the Canucks will simultaneously struggle to generate and prevent goals. But their power play should be good, the puck-dangling Pettersson will be worth watching most nights, the Canucks will play faster under second-year coach Travis Green, and there should be the unmistakable promise of better days ahead.
Besides Pettersson, Goldobin, Leipsic and Motte, experienced depth forwards Jay Beagle and Tim Schaller are also new to the team since this time last year. They were signed as free agents on July 1, along with injured winger Antoine Roussel (concussion), to provide grit and guidance to all the young players around them.
"You definitely have to learn how to win," Beagle, 32, who won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in June, said. "When I first came to the NHL, the big change wasn’t the speed, wasn’t the size. It was how people would capitalize if you took one shift off. It’s amazing that a game as fast as hockey can still be a game of inches, and being off by an inch can make the difference.
"I don’t look at our record in the pre-season. The thing that I am really encouraged by is the work ethic of this team. The guys in the locker room really do want to win. They want to come to the rink every day and work hard. Coming to a new group, you don’t know what the dynamic is in the locker room. You don’t know if it’s an absolute mess or what’s going on. But we have great guys in this locker room, which is a huge thing to have. I see leadership in this locker room. We also have youth that has incredible talent. I’m excited for the journey."
Boeser, last year’s Calder Trophy runnerup who scored 29 goals in 62 games before his season ended with a back injury, said he doesn’t care about the long odds against the Canucks challenging for a playoff spot.
"We care about our fans and the community and the owners and everyone here," Boeser said. "Obviously, we want to be a team that can compete every night and show up at the rink every day for every game and work our hardest to try to get a win. That (winning) culture has already been here, but I think we just have to re-establish it a little bit. That’s with the way we carry ourselves, and how hard we want to work.
"I’m still optimistic. I’m really excited. With all these young guys, I think we can really step it up. This is the transition to the new era."