ST. PAUL, Minn. – Two-thirds of the way through his second NHL season, Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson has never had more attention from opponents and never less sympathy from referees.
Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green’s post-game complaint Tuesday about the non-call on Boston Bruins defenceman Matt Gryzelcyk’s late takeout of Pettersson is a flashpoint for the treatment the 21-year-old star is getting from opponents and officials.
This is not a new issue, of course. For generations, the NHL’s most skilled players have drawn extra attention and abuse from defenders and, periodically, complaints from their coaches about the perceived lack of protection from referees.
Ironically, one of the more recent blasts from a coach came 14 months ago when former Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock complained about the Canucks’ treatment of Connor McDavid.
It’s hockey. Of course, the best players are going to be targeted because their opponents like winning games, too. Every elite player has to deal with this.
But as opponents increase their focus on stopping Pettersson, there continues to be a mysterious and precipitous decrease in calls going his way.
In the centre’s first 27 games this season, Pettersson was tied for second in the NHL drawing 16 penalties. In the last 27 games, he drew just eight, tied for 42nd. Considering the extra physical attention Pettersson has been getting, this 50 per cent decline in calls is counterintuitive.
“That’s partially the frustrating part,” Green told reporters after Wednesday’s practice in Minnesota. “He hasn’t changed his game. There’s been times when there should be penalties. I said that last night already.”
Two games after Pettersson was high-sticked in the face without penalty by New York Islanders forward Brock Nelson, Green spoke out after Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to the Bruins, which began with Gryzelcyk jolting an unsuspecting Pettersson heavily into the end boards two seconds after he had passed the puck on a rush.
“I’m so frustrated with it,” Green said in Boston. “This guy is one of the best young players in the league. And he gets hit (when) he’s totally defenceless.
“Those are hits that the league is trying to get out of the game, especially against top young guys, top players in the league. I think Petey has shown he is one of those guys, and it is frustrating for me as a coach to see some of the abuse he takes where he doesn’t get (calls). I know that he’s not the biggest guy, but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of a player that’s not ready to be hit. That should be a penalty all day long.”
Green said Wednesday he stood by his comments, but refused to elaborate and said the Canucks were moving on to Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Wild. With a 14-4-1 record since Dec. 17, the Canucks are the surprise leaders in the Pacific Division.
Pettersson limped off the ice after the hit about 3:15 into the first period but did not miss any shifts. He finished with 16:25 of ice time, one of his lowest totals this season. Pettersson leads the Canucks with 55 points in 54 games.
“My point of view of the hit: I dropped the puck, I’m ready to get hit,” Pettersson explained to reporters on Wednesday. “I see (Gryzelcyk) beside me. He doesn’t hit me, and then two seconds later he hit me when I’m, like, relaxed. Yeah, I’m not ready for the hit, so I flew into the boards.
“I was a little frustrated because I feel like it’s not a good play. It’s kind of like a dirty play because the hit is 10 metres away from where I dropped the puck and it’s two or three seconds later after I dropped the puck.
“I know I get a lot more attention now. I can feel it. I get less time with the puck. I feel like I always have a guy around me. But I feel like plays like that isn’t what we want in hockey because it’s a late hit and I’m not ready for it. I’m ready for it at first, but then two or three seconds later the hit comes.”
The referees in Boston were experienced officials Ian Walsh and Trevor Hanson.
Is Pettersson getting fewer calls because referees believe he is embellishing infractions?
“The refs already have a tough job,” he said. “I’m not looking for calls. I don’t want to have that reputation about me if. . . I’m embellishing or if I’m diving to get penalties. I’m not about that. I’m trying to play hard hockey with respect against opponents, but play hard hockey. Of course, sometimes I feel I should get a (call) with me, but that’s something I can’t control. All I can control is trying to play my best hockey.”
Pettersson managed just one shot on net in Tuesday’s shutout, but scored twice and was the best Canucks player in a 4-3 shootout loss Sunday in Carolina. In his first 27 games, the second-year player had 11 goals and 31 points. In the last 27, Pettersson has scored 12 and 24. He better get used to the attention. He’s going to have it for a while.