Amid outside noise, Canucks’ Pettersson trying to focus on things he can control

Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet reflects on Elias Pettersson's play of late, talks about how he's been working at practice, and discusses whether the noise surrounding Pettersson's pending contract negotiations is impacting him.

VANCOUVER — In the vortex of “noise” swirling like a cyclone around Elias Pettersson these days, the most important sound is what his coach thinks of him. And Rick Tocchet says the Vancouver Canucks star can play better.

“Petey… is maybe just OK,” Tocchet told reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “We have 22 games or whatever left to get his game going.”

While the Canucks’ other alpha forward, J.T. Miller, has been driving the team through its struggles the last couple of weeks, Pettersson has been quiet.

The 25-year-old centre has just one goal and two assists in his last six games, and the Canucks have gone 1-4-1. Excluding a three-point game against Detroit two weeks ago, when Vancouver last won in regulation, Pettersson has only four points in his last nine games.

Pettersson remains 10th in National Hockey League scoring with 29 goals and 75 points in 61 games, and most of his recent decline in scoring can be attributed to a downturn in his on-ice shooting percentage at five-on-five and his failure to collect points at five-on-four during the Vancouver power play’s 3-for-31 slump.

But Pettersson’s sudden drop in production coincides with an eruption of conjecture and debate about his future with the Canucks that was topped by DailyFaceoff insider Frank Seravalli’s tweet Wednesday evening reporting that “significant progress” has been made in contract talks between the Canucks and Pettersson’s agents and that an eight-year contract extension “could be finalized in the coming days.”

In a brief interview earlier in the day, Pettersson gave no indication that he had changed his position on delaying negotiations on a new contract in order to focus on helping the Canucks win. Pettersson is due to become a restricted free agent this summer and is eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2025.

“I mean, I haven’t lied,” Pettersson told Sportsnet. “I’m an honest guy, I like to think, and I haven’t said anything else (about it). I haven’t said anything I’m not doing. It’s a lot of noise, of course. I’m human, I hear it and I’m trying to focus on what I can control.”

Despite the negotiating embargo imposed by Pettersson, agent Pat Brisson and Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin confirmed to Sportsnet last month that they have maintained regular contact. Those informal conversations would likely include rough parameters about what a future deal might look like so that a contract could be quickly finalized when — or if — Pettersson is ready to green-light negotiations.

There really isn’t much mystery to Pettersson’s value. As we noted when winger William Nylander signed his eight-year, $92-million extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs in January, Pettersson has been a more productive scorer in the NHL, is two years younger and plays a more important position. An eight-year deal in the $12- to $13-million range for the Canucks centre is logical.

But everyone, including Brisson and Allvin, has been waiting on Pettersson’s permission to get it done.

“At an appropriate time, we’ll figure that out,” Pettersson said Wednesday. “It’s a lot of noise playing in a Canadian market.”

The Canucks need to know if Pettersson wants to re-sign in Vancouver and establish cost certainty for him in order to budget for their other free agents. Besides defenceman Filip Hronek, who is eligible for restricted free agency after his breakthrough season, Allvin has nine UFA-eligible players on his Pacific Division-leading roster. All of them would like to return, and the Canucks will want to retain at least some of them.

Understandably, Allvin wants to know how much he will have left to spend once he makes Pettersson the richest player — and possibly the first to earn a $100-million contract — in franchise history. The GM would like to know now, but he must know before free agency opens on July 1.

“We have another year with him as an RFA,” Allvin told us last month. “We’re not going to lose him this summer (as a UFA). But that being said, I’m trying to plan for our team this year and next year and I want him to be a big part of it.

“At some point, it’s going to come down to negotiations and if it’s working or not.”

Asked Wednesday if Pettersson’s uncertain contract status and all the chatter around it could be affecting the player, Tocchet said: “I think there’s a part of it, sure. I mean, he’s a human being, right? There’s a lot of pressure weighing on him and stuff like that. As a coach, I’ve never really talked about the contract with him. He asked me one time: ‘How do you deal with outside noise?’ That was a while ago. I think for him, you know, he’s in a market (where) there’s a lot of noise and I think he’s dealt really well with it.”

What did the head coach tell Pettersson?

“He can only control what he can control, right?” Tocchet said. “So when he comes (to the rink) today, ‘How am I going to get better?’ That’s my big thing. And then after that, can you shut your brain off when you leave the rink? That’s the hard part. Use your teammates to help or whatever other resources. We have a mental health skills guy. He was excellent here. There’s a lot of resources to use to block out noise.”

Whether or not the noise is affecting Pettersson, Tocchet described his recent play as “sporadic.”

“Petey is still learning,” he said. “He’s 25, and he’s still trying to learn. He hasn’t played much playoffs. To me, at practice, that’s where I think he’s changed his mindset a little bit. He would rest in practice because he wanted to be fresh for the games. But he has to understand that practise is really important and you’ve got to push the pace. That’s how you deal with pressure. I think he’s starting to understand that.

“His practise is a lot better for me the last two or three weeks, and I think that will help him in the long run. I’m a firm believer you practise hard. You have to practise really hard. You’ll get days off; I’ll get your rest. I think sometimes he was resting because… he knew was going to play a lot. He was resting for the games. I think you have to be careful of that.”

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Pettersson admitted that fatigue has been a factor some nights as Vancouver faced 10 games in 17 nights — in nine cities over four time zones — coming out of the NHL All-Star Weekend, which he attended as one of six Canucks representatives.

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, it’s an 82-game season and you’re not going to feel perfect all year long. Some games you feel better, and when those games happen, you play smarter. So it’s like learning and accepting what kind of body you have for the day. But Tocchet and the coaching staff have been great about understanding, with the trainers, what we can do with recovery and training. Obviously, you want to feel your best every game, but you’re not going to. At the end of the day, it’s a mindset.

“I mean, (my game) can always be better. I’m always my biggest critic whenever I play bad. I always watch my games and I see what I can do better. One time it’s like, ‘Oh [expletive], why did I make that play?’ But, I mean, even if I play my best game, I always think I could do stuff better. Maybe lately I’m overdoing things.”

Asked if trying to do too much was related to the Canucks’ 5-5-2 record in February, he said: “I’m never going to blame a teammate for my play. But, yeah, maybe if everybody plays the right way — and I’m not saying I’m playing the right way all the time, too — but if we’re striving for that, then everyone will play better.”

Despite the noise.

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