Don’t look now, but Elias Pettersson is on pace to tie Teemu Selanne’s rookie record of 76 goals in a season.
Actually, you should look now, because he’s unlikely to maintain that pace for much longer.
Pettersson is the first player in over 26 years to score nine goals in his first nine games in the NHL. Since he missed six games with a concussion, that gives him potentially 76 games this season. If he can continue to score a goal per game, then Selanne’s “unbeatable” record would be in jeopardy.
Sure, it’s unlikely, but it’s still stunning that Pettersson is even producing at that kind of rate. He’s tied with Evgeni Malkin for second in the NHL in points per game and has sole possession of first in goals per game.
It’s a lot for a player that doesn’t turn 20 for another week.
Those who were paying attention knew that Pettersson was going to be good, but he’s blown every possible expectation out of the water. Just one month into the season, Canucks fans are already awarding Pettersson the Calder, Hart, and Selke awards, while looking to the playoffs.
It’s completely understandable: beyond just the production, Pettersson’s play on the ice has been delightful to watch. He practically willed the entire team to victory on Friday with a 5-point night, including the game-tying goal with less than a minute remaining in regulation and a primary assist on the overtime game-winner.
How can you possibly contain the Pettersson hype? Why would you want to?
In the back of our minds, of course, we all know that Pettersson isn’t going to produce at this pace all season. No one has scored at a goal-per-game pace over a full season since the early 90’s and we haven’t seen anyone score 120+ points since Sidney Crosby managed it in 2006-07.
At the same time, when you take a closer look at Pettersson’s numbers so far, you find a lot more reasons for optimism than pessimism.
Let’s start with 5-on-5. Pettersson currently has six goals and three assists, meaning he scoring at a point-per-game pace just at 5-on-5 with nine points in nine games. What’s particularly impressive is that he has no secondary assists: his three assists at 5-on-5 have all been primary assists, ie. the pass that leads directly to the goal.
Even when you include his power play points, Pettersson has just one secondary assist. He’s been the primary contributor to the offence he’s produced and hasn’t picked up points by happenstance.
That shouldn’t be surprising if you look at his production in Sweden. Of his 56 points in the SHL last season, just 11 were secondary assists, while he had 21 primary assists. He was the league-leader in primary points by a decent margin.
That he is the primary driver of the offence when he is on the ice also shows up in another statistic: Individual Point Percentage (IPP). This statistic records the percentage of goals scored while a player is on the ice that they had direct involvement in, recording a goal or assist on the play.
Pettersson’s IPP at 5-on-5 is 100%. In other words, Pettersson has recorded a goal or an assist on every goal the Canucks have scored while he’s been on the ice at 5-on-5.
He’s not the only one with an IPP of 100% at this point in the season, but only one of those players has produced at a similar rate: Evgeni Malkin.
Admittedly, that is unlikely to continue. At some point the Canucks will score a few goals while Pettersson is on the ice for which he won’t pick up points. The average IPP for forwards is around 68%, with the best players in the NHL whose teams rely on them the most land around 85%. Connor McDavid, for instance, had an IPP of 87.65%, and that was the highest among players with more than 25 points last season.
Even if he won’t continue to pick up points on every goal the Canucks score with him on the ice, it’s just further confirmation of how he’s driving the offence.
Some will point to Pettersson’s shooting percentage as an indication that his scoring is unsustainable. To a certain extent, they’re right — he’s not going to score on 39.1% of his shots all season — but when you take a closer look, it seems like he should continue to score at a high rate.
For instance, if you look at his shooting percentages in Sweden over the last two seasons, he scored on a high percentage of his shots in both the Allsvenskan and SHL. He had the 15th highest shooting percentage in the Allsvenskan in 2016-17 at 17.75%, then had the fourth highest in the SHL last season at 21.24%.
With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that Pettersson is the type of player able to sustain a high shooting percentage, even if 39.1% is still unreasonable.
Beyond just the eye test of noting how Pettersson is able to create scoring chances and shoot the puck with deception, speed, and accuracy, we can see why Pettersson could have a high shooting percentage from the numbers. Pettersson has 23 shot attempts at 5-on-5 this season. Of those attempts, 19 were classified as scoring chances by Natural Stat Trick.
That means 82.6% of Pettersson’s shot attempts at 5-on-5 have been scoring chances, which is impressive when you consider that he’s averaging 9.65 shots on goal per 60 minutes.
Only two players last season averaged over 9 shots per 60 minutes and had a scoring chance percentage over 75%: Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid.
Again, he’s not going to maintain a shooting percentage of 39.1%, but that’s some rarified air he’s sniffing and it doesn’t seem crazy to suggest he could finish the season with a shooting percentage in the 15-20% range, which would be very good. Based on his current shooting rates, a 15% shooting percentage would net him around 30 goals, while 20% would push him closer to 40.
There’s another way that his shooting percentage could drop and his overall goals and points continue to climb, however: the power play.
So far this season, Pettersson only has three shots on goal on the power play. That may come as a surprise, but the primary shooters have been Brock Boeser (23 attempts, 14 on goal) and Bo Horvat (14 attempts, 11 on goal). Pettersson has scored on two of those three shots, which is unsustainable, but there’s plenty of room for him to continue to score goals on the power play by increasing his shot rate.
The main issue right now is the absence of Alex Edler and Sven Baertschi.
As much as some Canucks fans have questioned Edler’s abilities on the power play, he’s definitely been missed. The first power play unit hasn’t scored a goal at 5-on-4 since he got injured. Derrick Pouliot hasn’t been able to fill Edler’s shoes on the point and puck distribution on the first unit has suffered as a result.
Meanwhile, Sven Baertschi actually leads the Canucks in power play points per hour, just a little ahead of Pettersson, with no secondary assists. That could be dismissed as a small sample size, except Baertschi led the Canucks in power play goals per hour last season from the second unit and was near the top in power play points per hour.
If the Canucks’ coaching staff can figure out a way to buoy the first power play unit and get Pettersson the puck with more consistency, it doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest he could continue racking up power play points.
If you want to put a label on Pettersson’s production so far this season, “unsustainable” certainly fits, but that’s an awfully simplified label. The truth is that Pettersson has been the primary driver of offence for the Canucks when he’s been on the ice. His ability to create and take advantage of scoring chances bodes well for his ability to maintain an above-average shooting percentage. And his limited number of shots on the power play suggests there might be an untapped reservoir of points with the man advantage.
While he won’t challenge Selanne, there is every reason to believe that this isn’t just a flash in the pan for Pettersson.