I think many of us have had that moment this season, where we’re watching a Canucks game and we ask ourselves out loud “What in the world is wrong with Pettersson?”. My moment came late Monday night after the Canucks won 7-1 against Ottawa, and the only stat Pettersson had was a -1. I was stunned, that is next to impossible as a top-line player on PP1. Pettersson only has 2 points all season, tied for 10th on the team with 3 defencemen and Antoine Roussel. Brandon Sutter has doubled Elias Pettersson’s point total. What happened? Where did the timeline fracture? This is not the Pistol Pete we know and love.
Is Pettersson Hurt?
We may never find out for sure if Pettersson is hurt unless he misses any time, however, watching him play, he doesn’t seem to be labouring or avoiding any contact. His shot seems to be normal and lethal, but the trigger seems to be slower. Usually, if a player is playing through an injury they give off indications, for example, Brock Boeser’s shot., It was clear that Boeser didn’t have the same velocity on his wrist shot, after his rookie year. Sure enough, we found out he had a back injury plaguing him and his shot until this season. In the first game back it was evident, the shot was back for Brock. Pettersson’s shot doesn’t look to be off once he releases it. To my eyes, it looks like a lack of confidence on the shot vs, an injury, but I am no doctor.
If there is an injury it’s a wonder the team has him in the lineup. I understand the pressure to have him in the lineup when J.T. Miller was on the Covid list, but he’s back now. If Pettersson is perhaps injured, it would be beneficial to rest him early in the season so a push can be made late if need be. It would be much more damaging to the team come late spring, if the injury is no longer tolerable and Pettersson has to leave the lineup during the “important games down the stretch”.
Could This Just Be a Slump?
All NHL players have their ups and downs, it’s normal. Brandon Sutter looks like Sidney Crosby with his top-shelf backhand goals through traffic lately. He looks like an absolute world-beater in the last couple of games, but that’s not the real Brandon Sutter. It took Sutter 13 years to get his first hattrick on Monday night. Sutter is at the opposite point of the “peaks and valleys” cycle as Pettersson right now. That is usually good, unless you are in the playoffs. If you’re in the playoffs, you want players to step up while others are slumping.
We can of course prefix these concerns with your standard “It’s a small sample size” argument. However, with that said, it is also 14% of the way through the season at this point, so we can’t write off what we’re seeing as nothing. The runway to get his season back on track is shrinking more and more every game. In the 8 games played so far, Petey has a CF% of 42.2 (down from an average CF% 53.2 in his first two years) all well he has a higher offensive zone start percentage than either of his previous years. Even with that, he still can’t seem to win the shot share. Do you want to chalk up the bad results to bad luck? Sadly, it’s not even that. Pettersson has a PDO of 104.6 according to Hockey-Reference. That again is higher than his previous career average.
All these fancy stats match the eye test as well. Pettersson looks like he is taking a split second too long to shoot and even too long to make passes. He looks slower and less motivated to hunt down pucks as he has in the past. Even the little things we have come to take for granted, like winning seemingly every board battle has left his game. Pettersson used to make small plays that would leave you with your jaw on the floor every night, whether it was knocking a puck out of the air, an incredible backcheck to spring an odd-man rush or just deking players so hard they never live down the highlight reel. All of that magic seems to have up and left him.
Is this Motivation or Confidence Issue?
This could be just a confidence issue. NHL players go through struggles like this all the time, Nathan Mackinnon had two scoreless streaks of five games long in his third year and look what kind of player he is, so this isn’t uncommon. The NHL is a game largely in the hands of lady luck, and sometimes for seemingly no good reason, a facet of someone’s game dries up for a period of time.
Pettersson’s struggles could be related to this off-season as well. The Canucks took a big hit to the leadership core of their team, and many players have shared comments on the lack of communication from management. The remaining Canucks were shocked and surprised with Jim Benning when Jacob Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev, Josh Leivo or Troy Stetcher all went unsigned. The lack of message, sends a message to the players from the top saying “we know you had a great breakout performance, but we don’t believe in it and will not be keeping key pieces of that team together.”
Both Tanev and Markstrom leaving, stings a lot. With that said, the Canucks were likely smart to not match those deals. Put yourself in Elias Pettersson’s shoes here for a moment. You overachieved in the playoffs. You put together a run that had the hockey world a-chatter. You were on the brink of becoming a team ready to contend for a cup. Yet despite this, management doesn’t bring back the “Dad” of the team, or the new guy to fit your line like a glove, and the arguable MVP, and personal mentor. So how would that make you feel as Pettersson, if management never came in to explain the situation or lay out a plan so you can see the vision? These players were now just gone and there was confusion as to why. Now you’re told to get out there and play as nothing has changed. You can see how that could be unmotivating for almost anyone.
I know I know, these are pro athletes, they should play at 100% all the time regardless of who’s on the team with them, but this is a team game. Hockey especially is a team-oriented sport. You never take credit, you give it to your linemates. You live and die as a group, everyone has a role, and no one’s role is less important than the others. The Canucks GM let go some of the most important off-ice players with no communication to the team and you expect the players to shake off a change that big like nothing? That is a big ask by management.
Whether what’s plaguing him is confidence, injury, lack of team vision, or just good old fashion grinning the stick, Pettersson will bounce back, he is too good to not be good. He either needs to get healthy, lucky or work through some stuff and he will be back to the Alien we all love to watch so much. If you are looking for a silver lining, in the event if things don’t turn around, it would be that a down season for Pettersson will surely help the Canucks on the books come this summer. They have to sign Pettersson to what can only be imagined as a monster new contract. This means that for betterment and the future of the team, there is no better year for Pettersson to be giving the Canucks leverage in contract negotiations. But I wouldn’t hold my breath, Pettersson will put it all together again soon. It’s just a matter of time.