VICTORIA — One month after dropping a news bomb in Sweden that he wanted to wait before deciding whether to re-sign with the Vancouver Canucks, Elias Pettersson was finally asked Thursday on the opening day of training camp to explain himself.
How would he prevent the issue becoming a distraction?
“It’s not a distraction,” he said, four minutes into a 10-minute press scrum that followed the first sessions of camp. “You guys make it a distraction. I’ve got one more year left. I’m happy now, but I just want to focus on the season, my teammates and just come out with a good start with the team.”
What factors will impact his decision to re-sign?
Pettersson: “I’m just here to play to win. I’ve got one year more on my contract. That’s all I want to say.”
So, it’s just about winning?
Pettersson: “I’m excited for the season.”
As there was an apparent diminishing return with his answers, media questions about his contract ceased at three for fear of dead air. Everyone moved on.
Pettersson had exercised his right not to speak to reporters the last two weeks while skating with teammates at the University of British Columbia — and before the team’s official charity golf tournament on Monday — so Thursday’s comments were the first time Canucks Nation had heard from the 24-year-old star (and alternate captain) since his sit-down interview with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman in August.
Fifty-three years without a Stanley Cup tends to make fans cynical and skittish about the likelihood of impending doom, and any fans worried that Pettersson’s reluctance to sign a long-term extension this summer is a sign he wants to play elsewhere will not be assuaged by Thursday’s comments.
But parse Pettersson’s remarks all you want, two paramount facts remain unchanged: the centre becomes only a restricted free agent next July 1, ineligible for unrestricted free agency until 2025, and so his contract situation hasn’t the dire urgency that, say, last fall’s impasse in negotiations between the Canucks and UFA-eligible former captain Bo Horvat; and after two seasons of upheaval and a myriad of organizational and roster changes, Pettersson and everyone else on the team simply wants to win.
Just for something different, let’s see how winning feels in Vancouver.
Pettersson’s own agent, Pat Brisson, de-escalated the situation a month ago in an interview with Sportsnet, and Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said just last week at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton that there is plenty of time to work out a new contract for his best player, and that it could happen at any point this season.
“The main focus will be for him to perform and hopefully him and the team will be in a better place this year,” Brisson said, noting the profound difference in status between RFA and UFA. “It’s more that than anything else. And to evaluate. . . both sides can evaluate (and) let’s all sit down at the end of the year and explore where we’re at.”
And Allvin: “When the time is right, hopefully we’ll get something done. I know that Elias is happy here, happy with how we want to play, the additions of the players we got this summer and the direction the team is going.”
And yet here is Pettersson, inarguably one of the most talented players in Canucks history, a 102-point scorer last season who has emerged as one of the best two-way centres in the National Hockey League, shutting down contract discussions until a yet-to-be-determined later date.
Defenceman Quinn Hughes signed a six-season contract extension with the Canucks two years ago and earlier this month was named captain. Franchise goalie Thatcher Demko has three seasons remaining on his five-year extension, and winger J.T. Miller is just starting the seven-year, $56-million contract he signed last summer.
But Elias Pettersson is going to wait.
Probably, it all works out in the end for both sides. Or maybe Pettersson, like Pavel Bure back in the 1990s, harbours some personal grievances and would rather not play in the fishbowl of a market whose attentive glare is unyielding.
It’s all just conjecture at this point.
What’s undeniable is that Pettersson is about to start his sixth season in the NHL and neither he (Calder Trophy aside) nor his team has won anything.
Pettersson is highly-motivated to change this, and the Canucks really would have a crisis on their hands if he were not.
As it was, the nearest thing to panic on Thursday was the Canucks’ morning announcement that Ilya Mikheyev, the key winger who is returning from ACL surgery that ended his season in January, had left training camp for personal reasons.
A Canucks official made it clear his sudden departure had nothing to do with his injury, and coach Rick Tocchet later told reporters that Mikheyev might still re-join the team on Vancouver Island before training camp ends Sunday.
In Mikheyev’s spot, Nils Hoglander skated alongside Pettersson and Andrei Kuzmenko on the top line. A close friend of Pettersson, Hoglander, 22, is trying to re-establish himself as a Canuck after his NHL progress stalled and he was sent to the American Hockey League for most of last season.
“He’s an amazing guy, works hard,” Pettersson said. “A good opportunity for him, obviously, but I think he’s more than ready for it.”
Pettersson looks more than ready for the season.
He appears stronger and heavier after his summer training, something Brisson had predicted.
“I’ve got a little more experience now,” Pettersson said. “Going into my sixth season now. I know what to expect, I know what I’ve wanted to work on and, yeah, worked hard this summer. It’s the same as always: try and get stronger, try and get faster, get some more muscles and (be) better overall. My weight is up a little bit.
“I’ve always tried to work my hardest. I’m always trying to get better and I think this summer, when I didn’t play (at the world championships), I had a little more time to train. The progress I did this summer with gaining some weight, muscles, etcetera, was the biggest one so far.”
Pettersson said he is excited that Hughes succeeds Horvat as captain.
“Fantastic,” he said. “I mean, I’ve known him ever since we started playing each other and I think he has been taking steps every year. Obviously, this is a big step for him but I think he’s more than ready. I think especially last year, he took some steps. I’m excited for him.”
Pettersson said he likes what Allvin did in free agency, signing defencemen Ian Cole and Carson Soucy and bottom-six centres Pius Suter and Teddy Blueger, and that the Canucks will be successful this season by continuing to build on the strong finish they had last spring under Tocchet.
He said he believes he can score on the power play from positions other than his off-wing, and there is still room for growth after his breakthrough season last year.
“I always think I can become better every day,” Pettersson said. “I’m very happy, obviously, with my season last season. But I always like to think I’ve got more in me.”
Maybe that’s what he’s waiting for.