Trent Leith / January 22, 2021
The start of the season for the Vancouver Canucks has been less than ideal, granted, seemingly on the upswing now. There are a few key concerns and takeaways regarding Elias Pettersson, Nils Höglander and the special teams.
Should You Be Worried about Pettersson?
No. Elias Pettersson just has too much raw skill to take a sustained step back this drastic. This is not a player that had been punching out of their weight class and now coming down to earth. This is just a player slumping.
On the power play, Pettersson doesn’t have a point. Even on Wednesday night, he got 0 points on 3 goals. That’s just bad luck. But there is reason for hope with his powerplay performance. With Bo Horvat scoring two goals on the bumper spot Wednesday against the Montreal Canadiens, the Canadiens will likely adjust the PK to cover Horvat. That’s where the Canucks power play is lethal, because now that frees up Pettersson a little more for his rocket of a one-timer. The Canucks have options on the power play, and now that Horvat is on, you’d expect opposition to shade into him a little more.
Pettersson has looked off, that’s the best way you can put it. He doesn’t seem to be the elite threat we all know him as. He is doing less fantastical things in the neutral zone, he isn’t breaking ankles as he has before. However, with a little bit better puck luck, we wouldn’t be saying all this. When Pettersson has hit the crossbar, even a slightly different spin on the puck there could have easily resulted in a goal. On Wednesday night, he was sprung on a breakaway and showed even when he isn’t scoring, he’s still a threat, as he demonstrated with a between the legs attempt on Carey Price. He is still confident.
There could be a nagging injury here, or it could just simply be a rut. But Pettersson didn’t go more than 2 games without a point last year, and he is without one for 4 now.
The Lack of Höglander Talk is Actually a Good Sign
Höglander has been a quiet bright spot for the team. While he hasn’t had the immediate shine and flash that previous rookies like Boeser, Pettersson and Hughes have had, that’s not to say he isn’t an important part of this team. In fact, Höglander being relatively under the radar is a hat tip to how important and strong his game has been. It’s not what’s being said about Nils that should make you excited, it’s what isn’t being said.
Even though in their first 4 games the Canucks have struggled on the PK with only a 63.6% kill rate (league average 78.8%) and have been defensively stunted in general, Höglander is in the lineup and Eriksson is on the taxi squad. That speaks volumes about what Green thinks of the young forward. Green has never been shy to ice a veteran-heavy lineup in exchange for defensive reliability. With Höglander holding Loui’s spot on the second line, it implies Green thinks the value Nils brings to the table is higher than the defensive comfort Eriksson affords.
Much can be said about Eriksson’s tenure as a Canuck, but he is an effective penalty killer and good in his own zone, it’s the offence he no longer brings. Yes I know it was his offence that landed him the contract he has, and yes I know it’s that same offence that has shrivelled up and died under a train station bench like Voldemort. However, you can’t deny that he knows how to penalty kill, and has this weird calming effect on the rest of the team.
When Eriksson plays he could slot into the lineup on the third or fourth line, but usually, when Eriksson enters the fray, he finds himself in the top 6. Unfortunately for Eriksson, now that the young rookie in Höglander has grabbed a hold of his top 6 spot, Höglander has done everything possible to keep it. The fact that Loui is on the outside looking in is a sign of how well Höglander has been playing. Players like Virtanen often get their chance in the top six thwarted by Loui moving up to the Horvat line, but that has not been the case for young Nils.
The Special Teams Problem
If you want your penalty kill percentage and your power-play percentage to combine to around 100, you need to score as much as you give up. (That is the sign of half-decent special teams). It’s fast and dirty math, but it’s a snapshot analysis. The Canucks special teams total is 77.93. That’s not good at all. Even with the Canucks operating 50% on the power play Wednesday, they were in a hole deep enough to be operating at 14.3%. (league average 20.8%) and the PK has been very rough as well, at 63.6% (league average 79.25).
With that said, the power play is not something that should concern fans. It’s the same line up that was 4th in the league last year. Power plays have peaks and valleys, it just so happens this season started in a valley for two reasons. One, Miller is the heartbeat of the powerplay on the half wall, and once he returned the PP looked much more dangerous. The second reason is Pettersson’s slump. However, that is not something that should concern anyone long term. You can see the powerplay starting to swing the other way already.
The penalty kill is a harder beast to slay. Especially now with Hamonic and Edler injured on Wednesday night, both of which are used on the PK. Jaden Chatfield’s debut may be a saving grace, in his debut, he stepped right in and played 10 minutes in the first 2 periods. This was much less of a sheltered role than what Olli Juolevi had in his first 4 games. Chatfield brings less offence than Juolevi, but with a lineup that contains Quinn Hughes, Nate Schmidt and Tyler Myers, that is less of a concern. With defensive struggles, especially down a man, a defensive specialist is exactly what this team needs.
As talked about earlier, Loui Eriksson could be an added advantage moving forward as well. Antione Roussel has been virtually invisible, 1 point, 3 shots and only 6 hits in his first five games. Those are Loui Eriksson’s numbers. The Canucks should take a look at putting Loui in on the third line in Roussel’s place, at least for a period of time. They are not getting offence from Roussel, so you might as well get all the help you can defensively and on the PK, and that is the Loui specialty. Keep your eye on Brendan Batchelor’s Twitter page for any line updates.