VANCOUVER – Meaningful games in March are supposed to be preparation for more meaningful games in April. Nine points out of a National Hockey League playoff spot, the Vancouver Canucks aren’t getting either.
But Calder Trophy favourite Elias Pettersson, among other Canucks, should play meaningful games in May at the world championships in Slovakia.
Swedish national team coach Rikard Gronborg is making his annual late-season tour around the NHL to see players from his country, and the 50-year-old would love to have Pettersson play in Slovakia if he’s available.
Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom should also be an automatic choice for Sweden, although the 29-year-old may decline an invitation to the worlds after what could be a 60-game breakthrough season in the NHL.
“Fortunately, we have a lot of players in the National Hockey League,” Gronborg said Wednesday between periods of the Canucks’ game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Rogers Arena. “But Elias is definitely a player we’d like to have for Swedish world championship teams and the Olympics, if they allow NHL players to play. He’s the future, for sure.
“He’s always been an exceptional player. But the second half of last year we saw he was special. I’m not surprised (by his rookie season in the NHL), but I’m tremendously happy for his sake that he’s taken these steps.”
After his MVP season in the Swedish Hockey League, Pettersson played as a 19-year-old for Sweden at the 2018 world championships in Denmark, where the forward broke his thumb.
Pettersson scored 10 goals in his first 10 games for the Canucks this fall – just the fifth player in 100 years to start his NHL career that way – and with 57 points in 57 games has a 20-point lead in the rookie scoring race despite generating just one assist in his last five games.
Among the 83 Swedes who have skated in the NHL this season, only four have more points than Pettersson and at least two of them, Calgary’s Elias Lindholm and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom, are going to be busy with the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.
“He started this year as he ended last year,” Gronborg said of Pettersson, who turned 20 in November. “After Christmas (last season) something clicked. He was good before, but after he was something special. During the whole playoffs in the Swedish League, he was unbelievable. He was part of our world championship team and unfortunately he got hurt and couldn’t play the last few games.
“He’s got special skills. You can tell watching him he does the work. He’s not just an offensive player but does the dirty work also.”
Gronborg has been involved with Sweden’s national-team programs the last decade, and previously coached his country’s world junior and Under-18 teams.
The bearded coach first came to North America in 1990 to play hockey at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He played professionally in the short-lived Roller Hockey International before beginning his coaching career.
He was an assistant coach on Sweden’s 2013 world championship team that featured Canucks Daniel and Henrik Sedin and won gold medals on home ice. Markstrom, then a rookie with the Florida Panthers, was one of Sweden’s goaltenders.
As a member of the Canucks, Markstrom played at the 2016 world championships and made Sweden’s roster for the World Cup of Hockey that fall.
“We always saw that Markstrom was a good player, but now he’s a great player,” Gronborg said. “It takes a little longer for a goaltenders to develop into that type of player. It’s such a pressure job, if you make one mistake it’s a goal. I really enjoy watching him this year. You can see his confidence is shining. It’s a breakthrough season for him, for sure.”
Markstrom is 24-19-8 this season with a .915 save percentage and since November has been one of the best goalies in the NHL. Only Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk and Montreal’s Carey Price have logged more minutes than Markstrom, and it’s questionable whether he would want to pile on more work by playing at the worlds, which start May 10.
Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko and winger Brock Boeser are on USA Hockey’s radar for the world championship, and Bo Horvat could be among Team Canada’s invitees.
“We have a tricky job because we don’t know what players are going to be available when the world championships start,” Gronborg said. “We won in 2017 and won in 2018, and those were two totally different teams. We only had three players play on both those teams.
“If you want to have any chance of these guys committing to the world championships, we have to pay attention to what they’re doing and spend some time with them. I grew up with most of these guys coming through the federation (as younger players). It’s fun for me to see these guys coming into our program at 16 or 17 years old and suddenly they’re big stars over here.”
Gronborg is seeing nine NHL games in 11 days. There are Swedes on every NHL roster except Florida’s.