EDMONTON -- Money won’t buy Elias Pettersson happiness in hockey, but winning will.
During the summer doldrums in his contract negotiations, Pettersson’s ambitions became a talking point on both sides of the Atlantic when he told the website HockeySverige.se that he wanted to stay with the Vancouver Canucks “but I also want to play for a team that’s winning and has the chance to go far into the playoffs every year.”
His comment, perfectly reasonable, was viewed by some as a warning to Canucks general manager Jim Benning after Vancouver’s disastrous 2021 pandemic season saw the NHL team crash to the bottom of the Canadian standings.
Privately, management liked what it heard: their best forward badly wants to win. Who would want it otherwise?
Nearly two months later, Pettersson and the Canucks finally agreed on a three-year bridge deal worth $22 million. That’s all the money a 22-year-old should ever need, although it’s still only a fraction of what the uber-talented Swede could earn in his career.
As the Canucks open what they hope will be a redemptive season here Wednesday, Pettersson’s fourth in the NHL, the centre’s impactful skill empowers him as much as anyone on the team to make winning happen.
Pettersson knows all that money he’s making further raises expectations. He’s being paid at another level now, and he told Sportsnet he knows he must play at one, too.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I mean, that comes with being one of the top earners of the team. I want to be that player that makes the big plays and helps the team to win. I'm aware of the situation and I'm going to do my absolute best. I'm motivated. I'm super motivated.
“Last year wasn't the season I wanted. Started slowly, got going a little bit, and then I got the injury. I've had so many thoughts about how I wanted to come back. As much as last year sucked, it has kind of only made me hungrier, made me more motivated.”
This is excellent news for the Canucks.
For all the changes Benning made to upgrade the Vancouver roster, nothing is as central to Vancouver’s success this season as Pettersson and his 21-year-old buddy and teammate, defenceman Quinn Hughes, staying healthy and returning to elite form after signing second contracts that are precedent-setting for the Canucks.
Hughes’ deal, announced with Pettersson’s on Oct. 3, is worth $47 million over the next six years.
Money is great, especially when you don’t have any. But it doesn’t make you a winner.
“Whenever I step on the ice, I want to be the best player I can be,” Pettersson said. “Last year, I wasn't happy at all. I've had a good summer of training, had a really nice summer, so I'm very much ready for the season.
“None of us are happy with last year, how it went, how disappointing it was. Us as a team, we want to show that it was just one season.”
After the Canucks’ playoff breakthrough in the Edmonton bubble the previous summer, Pettersson decided for pandemic and quarantine reasons to remain in Vancouver last fall for the entire off-season. Remember, this was months before COVID-19 vaccines were available.
Then 21, he didn’t see his family for nearly a year and was physically cut off from his friends in Sweden.
When last season began, the Pettersson we saw for the first 10-15 games was not the star who soared through the previous two seasons, winning the Calder Trophy in 2019 and leading the Canucks to within a game of the Western Conference Final one year later.
After playing those first two seasons full of swagger, Pettersson looked tentative, even unengaged. He had just two points in his first eight games and a shot-attempts-for percentage of just 43.4 through 15 games.
“Especially after the season before that, the playoffs, I did so well,” Pettersson said. “Then high expectations, and then I start the season bad. I know there was a lot of expectation on me and I didn't play well, so it was a lot of negative. Like I said, it's only motivated me. I wasn't helping the team the way I wanted to.”
In a press conference at Rogers Arena soon after he re-signed, Pettersson told reporters: “It was a very nice mental release to just go home, be with your parents, be with your friends, just be at home in Sweden, kind of get away from Vancouver. It was nice to go home and just have a normal summer again.”
In conversation, Pettersson certainly seems happy. Importantly, he also looks strong and healthy.
The wrist injury that ended his season on March 2, after just 26 games, took four months to heal. Pettersson said he’d never had an injury like it but told reporters he has fully recovered and no longer feels any effects launching his slapshot.
He trained in September with Hughes and Ottawa Senators free agent Brady Tkachuk, the defenceman’s close friend, at the U.S. National Team Development Program compound in Plymouth, Mich. The players lived together at the Hughes family home about 20 minutes away, and were professionally trained by Quinn’s dad, Jim.
“It was great,” Pettersson said of both the training and accommodations. “Quinn is low maintenance. We did a lot of cooking. He cooked the protein, like chicken and steaks, and I was doing the potatoes and salad. So it was a good combo.”
Pettersson revealed that before going to Michigan, he returned to Vancouver and spent five days in mid-September at a friend’s house, hoping that the Canucks knowing he was back in town might push along negotiations. It didn’t.
“I was staying in hiding,” he smiled. “I was actually staying at my friend's basement; I wasn't living downtown because I wanted it to be low key. I wanted to show them, I'm ready, let's get it over with. But it didn't work. It took time and I'm really happy with my contract.”
Now all he needs to do is win.