WASHINGTON – There are eight games this season in which Elias Pettersson has failed to score a point, and the Vancouver Canucks haven’t won any of them. No wonder hockey coaches say you win or lose with your best players.
The Canucks have managed just two loser points – overtime losses to the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks – in the eight games Pettersson has been blanked. When the National Hockey League’s rookie-of-the-year has made it on to the scoresheet, Vancouver is 11-2-2.
That’s how important the just-turned 21-year-old is to the Canucks.
He scores, they win. He doesn’t score, they lose. It may not be fair, but it’s pretty simple.
In Thursday’s 6-3 win against the Nashville Predators, a slump-interrupting victory driven for two periods by the Vancouver power play and in the final one by goalie Jacob Markstrom, Pettersson had one goal and two assists with the man-advantage.
In the previous eight games, the Swede was held pointless four times and managed only five points during the Canucks’ 1-5-2 dip in the standings.
There are a couple of difficult truths here: the Canucks need to give Pettersson more help; and to be the great player he aspires to be, Pettersson has to accept the heavy responsibility of leading his team every night.
He is the Canucks’ best player.
"I know I’m young," he told Sportsnet before an optional practice Friday in Washington. "It’s just my second year in the league and I’m new. But that doesn’t matter; I still want to play my best hockey every night. And when I have a bad game, I just want to learn about it, forget about it and play the next game.
"I want to be the best player I can be every game."
Pettersson is learning a lot this fall. He soared along with his team through October before crashing the last two weeks.
The league caught on to Pettersson halfway through last season, when he faded down the stretch of his first NHL marathon. He scored just twice in his last 22 games, while adding 10 assists, and admitted after the season that he needed to be stronger and get better at dealing with the close attention of opponents.
He is stronger and better this season, but is getting even less room on the ice. Teams are playing him physically harder, often taking space away from him in the neutral zone even when Pettersson doesn’t have the puck. He hasn’t scored a power-play one-timer all season, as penalty-killers cheat towards him.
Of course, they’ve been doing that to Alex Ovechkin for 15 years, and the Washington Capital still has 673 goals. The Canucks play the Capitals on Saturday.
"Of course there is less space," Pettersson said. "I’m not new to the league now. Teams know who I am. I’m not saying that to be cocky or anything, but I feel like I have less time now and I always have a guy in my shooting lane.
"I feel stronger and all that. I don’t know if it’s a mindset or what it is, but for me it’s about working hard and not expecting it to be served to you. Some nights, you’re not going to be as good, but it’s important for you to do the small things. Don’t turn the puck over, be smart out there. Just skate."
Pettersson admitted that he has strayed from those basics in a few games recently, sacrificing some details while looking to create offence to help his struggling team.
"I feel like I kind of got away from the way I want to work on the ice, the way I want to be responsible," he said. "I feel like I haven’t played good. I think it starts with me working hard, and when I’m working hard I get chances.
"I feel like I’ve been a little, not sloppy, but maybe thinking my teammate will do this for me. I’m being honest. I feel like I can definitely work harder and do all those small things that are really important. Working harder. Being responsible."
Before we let Pettersson beg for forgiveness, we’d point out that his 28 points in 23 games comfortably lead the Canucks, and the centre still commands even-strength possession with a shots-for percentage of 58.2 and goals-for percentage of 61.3.
There is an awfully high bar for him – set not by us, but Pettersson. He saw how Nathan MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche on his back in its overtime win against the Canucks last Saturday, how formidable Jamie Benn looked in the Dallas Stars’ two recent wins against Vancouver.
That’s the kind of impact Pettersson wants to have each night.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "It’s a team game. But of course, I’d love to be that guy. But it doesn’t come easy. You have to do all the right things, all the smart things, and bring it every night. You can’t expect it to be served to you."
It’s the National Hockey League; nothing is free.