Even when Elias Pettersson isn’t scoring, he’s found other ways to help teammates thrive as a rookie center for the Vancouver Canucks.
Pettersson’s ability to learn on the fly and perhaps process information faster than the average 20-year-old playing his first season in North America is one reason coaches and teammates believe he’s been able to contribute so much more.
Earning and succeeding in a full-time role at center, a position he played eight times in the Swedish Hockey League last season, is a good example why Pettersson has been able to adjust to any given situation.
He led the SHL with 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) in 44 games, and was named most valuable player of the regular season and playoffs after helping Vaxjo win the SHL championship with 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 13 playoff games when he played right wing 81 percent of the time.
Pettersson leads NHL rookies in goals (25), points (50), power-play goals (seven), power-play points (14), and game-winning goals (seven) in 45 games despite missing five games with a sprained knee.
“I don’t think about points,” Pettersson said. “I try to be productive and creative and just become better.”
Four players to debut in the NHL since Pettersson was born Nov. 12, 1998 have scored at least 50 points in their first 45 games: Alex Ovechkin (60 in 45 games), Evgeni Malkin (53 in 45), Sidney Crosby (50 in 45) and Pettersson.
Canucks coach Travis Green saw enough good in Pettersson midway through training camp to conclude he preferred him at center. Pettersson has earned his trust in that role ever since.
“It says a lot about the type of player he is now, and in the future,” Green said. “He seems to just get it. A lot of things just come naturally to him. He has an inner compete that’s extremely high, and he’s driven to be a top player and his confidence is not cockiness. He’s very sure of himself and has an understanding of what you’re talking about.
“Sometimes, you need to check in with young guys to make sure they’re doing OK. Every conversation, I’ve never had to worry that he’s feeling down or up.”
Pettersson’s grasp of the game has enabled him to succeed even when times have been tough this season. It’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by teammates.
“Even if he wasn’t scoring all these goals, he does so many other good things,” Canucks right wing Jake Virtanen said. “He’s always making his teammates better, which is great, but at the same time he’s just got to stick to his game and not worry about what’s going on around him. I’ve been there where I hit a wall for a long time, but you got to stick with it, stay positive and keep playing your game.”
It’s that type of mentality that drives Pettersson to be the best at every level. Sweden National Junior Team coach Tomas Monten has coached Pettersson on three occasions at the international level, including a silver medal-winning performance at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo.
“The best thing with Elias is his hockey sense, how he sees the ice and openings,” Monten said. “At the 2018 World Juniors I was impressed with how much he improved his shot. He reminds me a little of Filip Forsberg. Filip is stronger but they both have the scoring touch, vision and smarts. And they both love the game.”
Forsberg, chosen by the Washington Capitals with the No. 11 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and traded to the Nashville Predators on April 3, 2013, had 63 points (26 goals, 37 assists) in his first full NHL season as a 20-year-old in 2014-15.
Monten said he always knew Pettersson would star in Vancouver. He just didn’t think it would happen overnight.
“The only thing I think he’ll need to improve to become an even better player is working on increasing his top skating speed,” Monten said.
Virtanen said in a span of six months Pettersson has shown drastic improvement from training camp to this point in the season.
“I feel like every game he’s always doing something new because he has that confidence,” Virtanen said. “He’s always making smart plays and he has a great shot, but I think the biggest thing I’ve seen is he doesn’t just have offense, but he’s so good in the defensive zone, too. He gets pucks out and makes plays, and obviously gets into areas to shoot the puck.”
Said Canucks forward Loui Eriksson: “He’s a smart kid. He thinks the game the right way and has a big shot and he’ll manage to be a really good player in this league for a long time.”