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One of the little-discussed secrets of Elias Pettersson’s rookie season is that he was extremely unlikely to repeat his incredible performance.
The Canucks’ phenom came roaring out of the gate, scoring a highlight-reel goal on the first shot of his career. He had 10 goals in his first 10 games, leading to comparisons to some of the all-time greats in NHL history. Even though he slowed down in the back half of the season, he broke franchise records and led all rookies in scoring by six goals and 21 points.
There was just one issue: the rate at which he scored goals just wasn’t sustainable.
Pettersson’s shot is ridiculous, with a lightning-fast release that still gets a lot of power behind the puck and propels it with pinpoint accuracy. Even with that shot in mind, however, his shooting percentage was abnormally high. Pettersson scored on 19.4% of his shots.
Essentially, one out of every five shots on goal from Pettersson hit the back of the net. That ranked sixth in the NHL last season among players with at least 100 shots on goal. The simple truth is that players don’t maintain a shooting percentage that high from season to season, even the best players in the NHL.
Steven Stamkos, who has a 60-goal season under his belt, is a good example. He had a shooting percentage similar to Pettersson’s last season — 19.2% — but the season before that, he shot at a more pedestrian 12.7%.
So, it should come as no surprise that Pettersson isn’t racking up goals the same way he did last season. A lot had to go right for Pettersson to score the way he did as a rookie: sometimes it’s a matter of inches determining whether a shot goes into the top corner or gets snagged by the goaltender’s glove or misses the net entirely. In addition, defences and goaltenders were unprepared for his skill and shot last season. Now, teams are keying in on Pettersson, giving him less time and space with the puck and nullifying the threat of his one-timer on the power play.
Fortunately, Pettersson has adapted. He’s weaponized the defensive attention he’s received as the focal point of the Canucks’ offence and used it to make everyone around him better.
“Now they know who I am, they know what I am capable of," said Pettersson early in the season. "I think maybe they are putting more focus on me. It's up to me to come up with new ways to beat them.”
He has. Instead of a stone-cold sniper, racking up goals, Pettersson has kicked off his sophomore season by becoming an elite playmaker. Pettersson leads the NHL in primary assists, the pass that leads directly to a goal. It’s a more sustainable way for him to rack up points than relying on a shooting percentage binge and the Canucks are significantly out-scoring their opposition with Pettersson on the ice.
Pettersson hasn’t shied away from the physicality as teams have tried to get him off his game and frustrate him. Instead, he’s welcomed it.
“I think it’s good they want to get me off [my game], to get in my head,” he said to The Athletic Vancouver. “It means they’re worried about me...I see it as a good thing. I just try to make them focus on me too much, make them angry, try to draw a penalty or something.”
More often than not, Pettersson draws that focus towards himself, then sets up a teammate, who suddenly has a lot more time with the puck to score himself. Now his line with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser is legitimately one of the best lines in the NHL.
Some Canucks fans have questioned why Pettersson isn’t scoring at will like he seemed to do in his rookie season, but that’s the wrong perspective. That he’s scoring at a better than point-per-game rate while his shooting percentage is a lot closer to the league average is an extremely positive sign.
While he’s unlikely to finish the season with 123 points, his current pace, as his linemates have elevated shooting percentages of their own, but his penchant for playmaking should still see him among the league leaders by the end of the year.
12 - Elias Pettersson has 12 primary assists this season, one ahead of Leon Draisaitl. His 18 points have him sixth overall in NHL scoring.
3 - Optimism for the Canucks hot start is warranted, but it should be tempered with caution. Through their first dozen games, the Canucks have played just three teams that made the playoffs last season. They lost two of those games and squeaked out a shootout win in the third.
Stick-taps and Glove-drops
A tap of the stick to Tim Schaller, who had a week to remember, scoring four goals in three games. That’s one more than he scored all of last season.
I’m dropping the gloves with the NHL scorekeepers for taking away Loui Eriksson’s assist from Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers. Sure, he technically didn’t touch the puck on the forecheck that led to Schaller’s goal, but it means every Canucks forward got a point in their 7-2 win except for Eriksson, which just seems so mean to the much-maligned six million dollar man.