Since the start of training camp, Elias Pettersson has skated on a line with Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin. That line is expected to stay intact for the first game of the preseason against the Edmonton Oilers.
The line is intriguing for a couple reasons. First, it features Pettersson at centre, the position the Canucks want and need him to play, but one that he hasn’t actually played all that much over the last couple seasons.
Second, Goldobin and Baertschi are young, skilled wingers. Neither are known for their strong two-way games, nor for their ability to get in on the forecheck and play a physical game.
When the Canucks signed Jay Beagle this off-season, Jim Benning hinted that his new centre’s ability to play in a shutdown role freed up Brandon Sutter to move up the lineup. It didn’t take long for fans to speculate that Sutter might wind up on a line with Pettersson: either playing centre with Pettersson on his right wing or sliding over to play right wing himself.
It makes a certain amount of sense for the Canucks to insulate their top prospect with big, two-way players, who could help him out along the boards, in the defensive zone, and in post-whistle scrums. Maybe another strong two-way veteran like Loui Eriksson or Antoine Roussel would play the left wing with Sutter and Pettersson, easing the burden on the young Swede even more.
Instead, head coach Travis Green appears to be putting the onus squarely on Pettersson to hold his own at centre.
Or, at the very least, testing to see if Pettersson is ready to do so.
“I thought he looked decent in the middle,” said Green about Pettersson’s play in Penticton. “Obviously he did some offensive things that we were probably expecting, but there’s gonna be some things that are going to take him some time to grasp. I don’t want to rush into moving him out of centre, because I think really good players adapt well and it doesn’t take them long to realize little nuances that they might have to change.”
Green identified defending down low in the zone as Pettersson’s biggest challenge and that’s not something Baertschi and Goldobin are particularly known for. Certainly, Baertschi is better defensively than you might expect, but Goldobin has been criticized for his play away from the puck in the past. Putting Pettersson with Goldobin perhaps sends a message to both players: no one is going to cover for you, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
“How you defend and how strong the guys are offensively is probably going to be [Pettersson’s] biggest challenge,” said Green, and also talked about adapting to the smaller ice surface, where you need to close more quickly on your check. He then drew a comparison to Henrik Sedin.
“Hank and Danny were in great shape,” he said. “They might not have been the strongest guys, Hank might not have been the strongest, but he found a way to defend down in his own zone. But early in his career it was probably harder for him. I’m expecting [Pettersson] to have some growing pains.”
Putting Pettersson on a line with two other young players suggests a commitment to having Pettersson go through those growing pains rather than protecting him from them. We’ll see how long that commitment lasts, however.
“There’s a good chance [Pettersson] does play with a couple veterans,” said Green. “There’s only going to be so many rookies that are in the lineup, and I don’t look at Leipsic or Goldobin like they’re true rookies, but there’s a possibility for anything as far as our combinations go.”
Will Pettersson need two-way veterans on his line to support him or will he adapt to doing the dirty work away from the puck on his own so that he can play with any wingers with whom Green sees fit to match him? We’ll start to get an answer to that on Tuesday night at Rogers Arena.