VANCOUVER – Two years ago, when he was a paper-thin teenager playing against men, Elias Pettersson won the Swedish Hockey League scoring title with 56 points in 44 games for the Vaxjo Lakers.
Naturally, there were questions then about whether the 165-pound rookie could be as effective in the playoffs as intensity increased and time and space disappeared. The 19-year-old scored only 10 times and amassed 19 points in 13 playoff games, winning the playoff MVP award while leading his team to the SHL championship.
Apparently, Pettersson was OK with playoff hockey.
So, the issue about his lack of NHL playoff experience barely makes it to a question mark before the Vancouver Canucks star answers: “I’ve played playoff hockey before in Sweden.
“What I can tell from that is the games are tougher, you fight more for pucks, and everyone’s game raises. It’s just a tougher game all around. And I expect the same thing in the NHL because the Stanley Cup is one of the most famous trophies you can win, and everyone wants to win it.”
It will be common question for the Canucks as they prepare for a qualifying-round series against the Minnesota Wild that several of their best players – Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, Jacob Markstrom, Bo Horvat – have little or no Stanley Cup playoff experience.
And each time he is asked about it, Pettersson’s fuel tank will fill a little higher so that when NHL games finally resume in August – if unimpeded by the coronavirus – the 21-year-old will play at full throttle. This is the way Pettersson is.
Doubt him at your peril.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” Pettersson told Sportsnet on Tuesday when asked if he still gets motivated by questions about his ability. “I’m always trying to be positive about things and when I get doubted like I’m too small – I’ve been hearing that my whole life – I’m just trying to prove them wrong and show that I can play.
“I always like challenges. I always want to be the guy that helps the team win. That’s always been my main goal. I’ve always been a guy that’s supposed to score points and make plays, so I’m always trying to do that.”
The season before he arrived in the NHL, a year after the Canucks selected him fifth-overall in the 2017 entry draft, Vancouver had 73 points. Pettersson won the Calder Trophy as a rookie and this year was driving the Canucks on a 93-point pace when the league shut down in March.
He is still only 21 years old.
“He’s a driven, young player that wants to be one of the better players in the game,” Canucks coach Travis Green said after the second day of summer camp at Rogers Arena. “I think certain players in the league have a mindset and a drive within them, that they believe they can be one of those players, and it’s not a coincidence when they do become that because they are driven and they have high expectations of themselves. I think he has that for sure.”
Pettersson’s veteran wingers, J.T. Miller and Tyler Toffoli, have experienced extended playoff runs. Toffoli won a Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2014.
“He’s super competitive,” Miller said of Pettersson. “I try to be a sponge when I’m around him. I have, obviously, more experience than him, but at the same time, he does a lot of things that I struggle to do well. Everything that we’ve done, especially after Christmas. . . everything is related to the playoffs. I think he knows what it takes to be a good playoff player.
“I think for him, it’s going to get really hard. The games are really hard. I’m sure he’s going to want more room than he’s going to get. But he scored a ton of goals around the front of the net this year, which I think is underrated in his repertoire. I think it’s going to be a learning curve for him. I hope he picks it up right away and dominates, but sometimes it doesn’t work like that. I think he understands it’s going to be hard battle, especially trying to create momentum within your team because no one’s going to be there (watching).”
Pettersson said: “I think the team that wants it the most is going to win it because it’s going to be different circumstances – no hype from the fans and empty arenas. So it all comes down to, I think, who has the best mental game.”
Pettersson already has one of the best games physically in the NHL. He has 55 goals and 132 points in his first 139 NHL games and is a consistent driver of offence. And his trajectory still tilts upwards.
The centre said he spent the four-month shutdown “in the gym” to work on his strength, as well as his skills.
“The first and second seasons were different for me,” he said. “The first one, I came in new and all that. The second one, everyone was paying attention to me. I got less time with the puck. Everyone was trying to, like, lock me down. So I learned a lot this season about how to come up with new things to be successful and make plays.”
This summer is like a third season for him.
“Of course, it’s a new thing and, of course, it’s a chance to get experience,” he said. “But none of us are (just happy) to be here. We want to play our best and hopefully go as far as you can go. That’s how I think we see it. Where guys are going to play next season, what’s going to happen in the future, that’s out of our control. But right now, we’re a team and we’re a good group and we’re going to try to go as far as possible. I think we have a chance.”