VANCOUVER – Super soldier serum transformed skinny, sickly Steve Rogers into muscular super hero Captain America. Unfortunately, the Marvel Comics’ serum is currently unavailable outside of top-secret military labs, so Elias Pettersson had to get bigger the old-fashioned way: conditioning and diet. How boring.
The results, however, are somewhat similar.
In his first interview since returning to Vancouver ahead of next weekend’s NHL training camp for the Canucks in Victoria, Pettersson, 20, looked slightly bigger and more muscular than last season, when the six-foot-two Swede won the Calder Trophy while generously listed at 176 pounds.
Another stark difference from this time last year was Pettersson’s ability Wednesday to make light of his weight.
He had seen the Twitter post comparing his transformation to Captain America’s.
Yes, he told reporters at Rogers Arena, he is bigger.
“Maybe it’s not a big difference like Captain America,” he added.
“I talked to my strength coach at home (about) what I want to get better at – and stronger, of course. He put up a schedule for me. . . and I feel great. Quicker, like in tight turns. And, of course, more leg power, more conditioning. At the end of last season, I felt kind of tired, and not 100 per cent energy towards every game. That would be the main focus this summer.
“This summer, I knew what I was preparing for. So I’ve been working a lot on my conditioning to get more leg power, and to hopefully play a full 82-game season and, hopefully, playoffs. I know what I’m expecting now.”
So does the rest of the NHL, which is why Pettersson’s strength and conditioning, still evolving at his age, are critical elements.
The centre’s skills and hockey intelligence were proven beyond question at the start of last season, when Pettersson began his NHL career by scoring 10 goals – and 16 points – in his first 10 games.
But amid that historic start, Pettersson was rag-dolled to the ice by Florida defenceman Mike Matheson, whose two-game suspension was only one-third the length of the Canuck’s absence due to a concussion.
Pettersson later missed five games with a leg injury after he was pulled over by Montreal rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
In the Canucks’ final 19 games, when opponents were keying on Pettersson, he managed only two goals and eight assists and admitted he didn’t have the same energy he felt at the start of the marathon season.
Pettersson still won the Calder Trophy by a landslide, beating the runner-up, St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington, 151-18 in first-place votes cast by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. But the weak finish to Pettersson’s formidable first season in the NHL fired him up to be better.
“I’m really motivated,” he said Wednesday. “The last two weeks felt like a lifetime because I really wanted to come back to Vancouver.
“I’ve been working out this summer a lot just to get better, get stronger and be as prepared as possible. I want to get better every day and become a better player every day.”
General manager Jim Benning’s summer acquisitions of potential 20-goal wingers Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller, as well as the free-agent signings of defencemen Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn, make the Canucks better.
But coach Travis Green told Sportsnet in August that the Canucks’ improvement still hinges on the continued development of Vancouver’s young stars.
“Petey becoming a better player is a big part of us taking the next step,” Green said. “I can be very open and honest with him, but I know he’s driven to win. There are other young players I’ve seen in junior and the AHL that were very good players but weren’t driven to win. I know he’s going to do everything he can to be a better hockey player and push us to be a better hockey team. I believe Quinn Hughes has that in him. And I believe Brock took a lot of steps last year, too.”
Calder candidate Hughes, a potential game-changer on defence, will be on the ice this weekend for the Canucks’ rookie camp in Vancouver. But Brock Boeser, who scored 59 goals in 140 games during his first two-plus NHL seasons, is home in Minnesota, unsigned as a restricted free agent.
Pettersson’s friend and linemate has also been dealing with another horrendous medical challenge for his father, Duke, who has Parkinson’s Disease and suffered massive heart failure on July 29. Brock’s dad stopped breathing for 15 minutes and spent most of August in the intensive care unit of his Minnesota hospital.
“It’s been a long month,” Boeser, 22, recently told The Athletic’s Michael Russo. “I went to the hospital every day for the first, what, three weeks. But he’s showing us some good signs lately, which if you know Duke, is very much like him. He’s getting his color back. He’s looking around, moving around. Maybe he recovers from this and is stronger. That’s very much like him.”
Benning said Wednesday he’s optimistic he’ll get Boeser re-signed before training camp opens next Friday. Like so many restricted free agents who are core players on their teams, Boeser has been at a standoff with the Canucks, unwilling to sign long-term for what the team is offering.
Pettersson said he texted Brock and has been praying for Duke Boeser.
“Of course, I hope he’s here tomorrow,” Petterson said of his teammate. “I hope he’s here as quick as possible.”
Has he been lobbying Brock to sign a new deal and get back to Vancouver?
“Not yet,” Pettersson said. “But if it’s getting close to Oct. 2 (and the Canucks’ season-opener in Edmonton) and he’s not here, I’ll put some pressure on him.”