TORONTO — The growing legend of Elias Pettersson reached the centre of the hockey universe even before the outrageously talented Vancouver Canucks rookie did.
We jest here, of course, but it’s clear the 20-year-old Swede had already piqued a considerable amount of interest inside the Toronto dressing room before the first Maple Leafs-Canucks game this season — a game he’s not even going to be able to play in because of injury.
“He’s been pretty electrifying,” said John Tavares, noting that he’ll usually stay up to watch a couple periods of the late games on nights the Leafs play. “He’s fun to watch and obviously, a tremendous talent. I think he’s going to be a pretty special player.”
Pettersson is proof that the spotlight is bound to find you when you start your NHL career with an array of eye-popping plays and 22 goals in 38 games, late start times and East Coast bias be damned.
William Nylander called his first half season “amazing.” Auston Matthews labelled him “fun to watch.” Tavares marveled at how calmly Pettersson is able to control the play in his first year of small-ice hockey, an asset that belies his years and experience level.
“I think it’s just his overall awareness. He just knows where to be and has a good sense of where everyone is on the ice with his playmaking,” said Tavares. “When he gets [the puck] he’s just very smooth. You can just see how controlled, how calm he is with it. He’s got a really good shot, too, especially for a guy that’s smaller framed and he’s younger. He’s still probably going to mature a bit.
“His ability to kind of be a dual threat like that is very dangerous.”
It’s a shame, really, that Pettersson is going to have to watch Saturday’s date at Scotiabank Arena from the press box. His right knee twisted awkwardly after getting tangled up with Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi on Thursday night, forcing him to undergo an MRI here on Friday.
No timetable has been provided for his absence.
That uncertainty didn’t keep Leafs coach Mike Babcock from zeroing in on Pettersson during his pre-scout of the Canucks, marveling at the hat trick performance the rookie had in Ottawa on Wednesday night.
“I mean he was a dominant, dominant, dominant player,” said Babcock. “He had the puck all the time, I don’t know why. Some of those guys — you ask Mitch [Marner] why he has the puck all the time, I don’t know, they’re smarter than everybody.”
Pettersson was a prospect the Leafs scouts were very high on in advance of the 2017 draft, prompting Babcock to review tape of his games with Timra IK in the second-tier Allsvenskan that season.
Toronto owned the 17th pick and didn’t make a trade to move up the draft board in Chicago. The Canucks landed Pettersson at No. 5 — a selection that already looks like a steal.
“You can say lots of things about him. He doesn’t look like he’s that [big or] strong, he just has the puck the whole time and everybody keeps backing off so he has space,” said Babcock. “He can shoot and he can pass it and he sees it.
“He looks like a real player to me.”
Pettersson has both the boxcar stats and fancy stats to back up the growing hype. He’s eighth in 5-on-5 goals per 60 at 1.54 — trailing Tavares (1.89), Jeff Skinner (1.84), Alex Ovechkin (1.8), Matthews (1.61) and a couple others.
He’s 11th league-wide in even-strength points per 60 and has a runaway lead in the rookie scoring race, outpacing Ottawa’s Colin White 42-25.
But there is also a certain unquantifiable genius to the way he moves around the ice and thinks the game that’s helped instantly elevate him to star status.
The only Leafs player who has experienced it firsthand is fourth-liner Par Lindholm, who spent the past four seasons with Skelleftea AIK and was swept in the Swedish league final by Pettersson’s Vaxjo HC team last spring.
Pettersson was named playoff MVP after also earning the regular-season MVP award during his only season in the SHL. After witnessing that, Lindholm expected him to make an immediate impact in North America.
“I think I was more surprised when he did well in the SHL,” said Lindholm. “He was a rookie there — like same story — people think he’s too small, too weak. But he’s got great vision. I was kind of surprised there.
“When he could make it in the Swedish elite league against all players and heavy players it wasn’t a surprise he’d make it here. Like the start he’s had [with Vancouver] is kind of over the top, I think. I wouldn’t have expected that, but I knew he would be good.”