The Vancouver Canucks top centre Elias Pettersson can’t win face-offs. Unfortunately that seems to be the least of his problems lately. “Petey” is a bit discombobulated having not played much hockey dating back to the first NHL Covid season. He played 68 regular season games in 2019-’20 and then 17 playoff games, when he was a key contributor with seven goals, including two game winners, and 18 points. It was an impressive performance as the Vancouver Canucks won the qualifying round and then the first round.
Since then he played 26 games last season before his ended prematurely with a wrist injury, and then of course he reported late to this campaign’s preseason just over three weeks ago following contract negotiations. The microscope is on him, not only because he’s expected to be a top-line producer, but because he’s now banking $7.35-million US per year in his three-year bridge deal. So what is one to do with Petey?
“Preparation has been a bit different,” Pettersson said after practice Monday. “Last year I got injured, but it is what it is, I’m not living in the past, I’m thinking about what I can do in the moment. Sure, I haven’t started this season the way I wanted to but I mean, that’s life, it doesn’t always go the way you want it to, I’m just gonna work hard and try to make the next game better.”
The question potentially better suited might be, what can the Canucks do for Petey? One: don’t panic. Two: maybe get him a bit of protection, a concept that has pretty much gone out the window in recent years.
There is no Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley riding shotgun these days for a guy like Pettersson. Wayne Gretzky enjoyed those large human escorts en route to his astounding record-breaking career. “The Great One” didn’t have to do it all, like the Gordie Howe-types from the prior eras when players relied on themselves for protection. And there’s no way Petey should have to be a do-it-yourselfer either. He’s a slim, trim, dangler at 6-foot-2.
So without the old style protection, maybe the Canucks just need to get a bit sturdier. Will “not-tough-enough-to-play-against” be a moniker that develops for this club? How much of Conor Garland-style shift-disturbing will serve as enough menace making and physical intimidation? Even though opponents like to make friendly chit-chat on the ice these days more than ever before, the angry intimidation factor still exists, especially in the playoffs. Which means the Canucks have some time to figure it out.
Unless Petey gets mangled first.
I refer to the Colin Miller first period hit in the Vancouver Canucks game against the Buffalo Sabres. Pettersson took a hit to make a play crossing the blueline at the 4:20 mark, got buried, and then wasn’t very much of a factor the rest of the way. This is not to suggest he’s one of those “hit ’em once and he disappears” kind of guys, but the play seemed to be a contributing factor in his lack of engagement. Meanwhile, the Canucks believe this is more of a “finding his game” situation.
Again, don’t panic.
“It’s not just the training camp, he missed the last thirty games of last season,” said Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Travis Green after practice Monday. “He hasn’t played an NHL hockey game for awhile, he’s still a young guy, we know how good he can be, we know how good he is, but his game is going to slowly improve is what we’re expecting.”
As for the face-off struggles? Pettersson is at a 30% winning percentage, which putting it nicely, is pathetic for a number-one centre in the NHL. By the way, teammate Bo Horvat is a very respectable 54.7 percent this season while actually taking more (139) and winning more (76) face-offs than any other player in the league.
“I’m not going to shy away from it, I’m working on it, I’m going to try and win every face-off, so I need to be better in that area,” Pettersson said.
It seems that this story has more questions than answers, and maybe that’s appropriate given the situation, a slow start for Petey. So here’s another one: Pettersson was asked if the slow start bothered him …
“No, it give you guys something to talk about,” he replied.