How Elias Pettersson took over Vancouver in his rookie season
Pettersson’s teammates in the Swedish Hockey League began calling him “The Alien” for his ethereal playmaking ability, but it’s also appropriate for the way the 20-year-old slithers his 176-pound body across the ice, fending off (and evading) men with 40-plus pounds on him.
“It’s been with me all my life,” Pettersson said at NHL All-Star weekend at the end of January. “Now I’m pretty — kind of — tall, but I’m still skinny. When I grew up, I was short and skinny. I was always hearing, ‘He’s too small to play. He won’t be able to play good, blah, blah, blah.'”
This season, the average NHL player’s weight dipped under 200 pounds for the first time in 20 years (the average opening-night roster featured players at 199.3). The league’s newfound emphasis on speed and skill, while putting less of a premium on being brute, also plays in Pettersson’s favor. And yet, during Pettersson’s draft year, his slight frame concerned some scouts, and was the largest reason he fell to No. 5 overall in 2017.
Yet, with 51 points in 46 games, he’s on pace to have the best rookie season since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby‘s sizzling co-debut in 2005-06. And the largest reason Pettersson is thriving so far might not be in spite of his size, but perhaps because of it. Being thin heightened Pettersson’s spacial awareness and forced him to embrace a crafty spirit.
“He [isn’t] scared to dangle,” linemate Nikolay Goldobin says. “He [isn’t] scared of it. He isn’t scared of turning over the puck. And then he makes plays that maybe you don’t expect.”
“He can shimmy-shake anyone,” says their other linemate, Brock Boeser. “He gets the puck next to the blue line on the power play. Any other player would have dumped it in. He shimmy-shakes the guy. Some plays he makes, I just don’t know how someone can do that.”
Pettersson is deliberate about everything he does, from learning not only how to master his father’s old unicycle but also juggle while riding it, to executing bank passes off the boards reminiscent of plays from the Sedin twins’ playbook. And of course, he works as hard as anybody.
Before his first season with Vaxjo (SHL) in 2017-18, Pettersson wasn’t pleased with where his shot was. He identified 12 different motor movements that composed his shot, then spent 15 minutes after practice every day to work on each component individually until he was satisfied. The result? As a teenager playing among men, Pettersson tallied 24 goals and 56 points in 44 games, winning the league scoring title, SHL Rookie of the Year and both the regular-season and playoff MVP. It was the most points ever for a junior player in the SHL, breaking a mark set 40 years ago by Kent Nilsson — a player Wayne Gretzky would later call “the most skilled hockey player I ever saw in my entire career.”
And so maybe it’s no surprise that Gretzky is also in awe of Pettersson. In fact, the Great One reserved the highest praise for the Canucks rookie on an appearance with Sportsnet 650. Gretzky said Pettersson was “exactly what the people in Vancouver needed to sort of move on from the Sedin era.”
And even better: “From my point of view, he’s got a lot of my similarities.”
The wild-card picture in the Western Conference is a jumbled mess. The fact that the Canucks are still in the mix (and, as of this writing, two points out) cannot be understated. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding phase, depth is still troubling, but Vancouver has the right building blocks. Center Bo Horvat is only 23 and trending for his best statistical season. Brock Boeser, 21, is a pure sniper (he led the team in scoring last season as a rookie, despite playing just 62 games), and 23-year-old goalie Thatcher Demko has been long lauded as an uber prospect. Then there’s the elite puck-moving defenseman Quinn Hughes, 19, still matriculating at Michigan, but shining at international tournaments.
However, it was Pettersson’s arrival that transformed the complexion of the franchise, akin to what Ovechkin did for Washington 13 years ago. The Canucks are not shy of announcing Pettersson as their best player. Just ask Boeser, who was causing celebre in his rookie season. Boeser-mania included fans retailing shirts with photo collages of his face. By spring, after he became the first rookie ever to win All-Star MVP, Boeser was filming skits with singer Michael Buble.
“The hype around Elias is crazier — it’s way crazier,” Boeser says. “What he’s done for the fans and this city already is tremendous. He’s coming into this league and getting 10 goals in his first 10 games? That’s something no one really does. He’s a special player.”
The Canucks, of course, knew that. Undaunted by Pettersson’s size, they gave him the first max rookie contract for a No. 5 pick. That means he can earn up to $2.85 million in bonuses. He unlocked two $212,500 bonuses on the same day in early January when he was named the Canucks’ All-Star representative, then subsequently scored his 20th goal. He’ll get another $212,500 when he hits 35 assists (he’s already at 26) and $212,500 when he gets to 60 points (he’s at 51).
A sensational prospect in a hungry Canadian market is the recipe for extra scrutiny, and Pettersson’s relationship with the media didn’t get off to the best start. He is a perfectionist and has found a way to excel in every area of his hockey life. He hasn’t, however, mastered English yet, and some of his interviews can appear awkward. He gained a reputation as being abrupt. And if it’s perceived that he doesn’t like a particular question from a journalist, well, that’s how The Pettersson Death Stare became a meme.
“Sometimes I think when reporters ask him stuff, he doesn’t know what they’re asking,” Boeser says. “So that’s when he gives them that look — it’s because he has no idea what they want. If I had Swedish reporters asking me s—, I’d probably look at them too.”
Pettersson lives alone in Vancouver, but he spends a good amount of time hanging out with Boeser and Goldobin, a Russian-born winger. Goldobin has been in North America for four seasons. Though he’s increasingly more comfortable with his English, he says non-native speakers struggle with other conversational norms Canadians or Americans might take for granted. “You know [Washington Capitals center Evgeny] Kuznetsov?” Goldobin says. “He’s so funny with the media, I wish I could show that personality … I’m not there yet. When I talk to you, I don’t really think I can show that off.”
And so, yes, there are times that Pettersson has appeared surly. After he scored a goal and tallied four assists against St. Louis on Dec. 6, a reporter commented: “It’s not easy to put up five-point nights.”
Pettersson’s response: “No.” And then a long pause. After Pettersson scored a hat trick against the Ottawa Senators on Jan. 2, some Ottawa reporters appeared incredulous when Pettersson explained he once dreamed of playing in Vancouver as a child. “Yeah,” Pettersson said. “Google it.”
Then there was media day in San Jose, where Pettersson, one of 11 All-Stars age 22 or under, was asked if he felt like he was part of the star player community yet. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really want to go into that conversation. I don’t really have a good answer for that.” (Pettersson actually summed up his take on All-Star media day in his blog for the Canucks website: “There was quite a bit of media at the event, but the questions were pretty much the same: Am I surprised at how well the season is going, am I feeling more comfortable in the NHL and who am I most excited to meet this weekend. The answers are yes, yes and the Swedish players! Always nice to meet my fellow countrymen.”)
In a broad sense, Pettersson has actually been quite accommodating for the media. He already has appeared in two of Canada’s most high profile TV shows: An “After Hours” segment with Scott Oake and a one-on-one produced session with Nick Kypreos on Sportsnet, a day after Pettersson awkwardly collided with Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Pettersson, at the time of the interview, was still awaiting MRI results to determine the severity of the injury. (He would miss five games with a right knee sprain.)
Reports from Vancouver media suggest Pettersson has improved in scrums over the past month or so. His English has also improved since he first arrived in North America. “At development camp, he didn’t know any English,” Boeser says. “He wasn’t the nicest, at least I felt like that because he looked at you like he had no idea what he was saying. He’s come a long way since then.”
Pettersson — or, around the team, Petey — is quite popular in the locker room now. “At first he’s kind of shy with people he doesn’t know, but once you get to know him, he opens up but he’s a humble kid,” Boeser says. “I feel like I see some similarities with myself. We’re roommates on the road and we’ve been best buddies ever since.”
Pettersson is very close to his older brother, Emil, a 2013 sixth-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes organization last week. The Pettersson brothers grew up in Ange, a small town in the center of Sweden with a population under 3,000. The brothers return over the summer and train together, except for the two weeks they’ll return to their old Swedish club, where they believe the strength coach is the best in the world.
Perhaps that coach holds the blueprint for how a 176-pounder can thrive in the modern NHL. More likely, it’s a combination of Pettersson’s industrious spirit and diligence. “As a young player coming in, he has a good work ethic and that’s good to see,” Vancouver coach Travis Green says. “A lot of young guys, you need to push them in that area, and he hasn’t been one of them.”