No one was ever concerned about Elias Pettersson’s skill.
How would someone his size adapt to the tough, physical play in the NHL? How would he hold up on the smaller ice surface, where physical contact is nigh-unavoidable? Would he able to avoid injury when the bigger, heavier players of the NHL are bearing down on him or wearing him down along the boards or in front of the net?
There’s no denying that Pettersson is skinny. Even in his hockey pads, Pettersson looks like a beanpole, a visual that isn’t helped by his elongated neck. When he weighed in at 164 lbs at the NHL combine leading up to the 2017 draft, there was understandably some concern.
The constant questions about his weight got Pettersson frustrated — “Stupid questions get stupid answers,” he once said in regards to yet another weight-related query. They quieted down once he got to Vancouver, where he weighed in at a more-respectable 176 lbs during Canucks fitness testing.
What might be missing in all the obsession over Pettersson’s weight is how another element of his size can help protect him from injury: his height. Or, more accurately, his length. The way that Pettersson uses his reach is going to keep him out of harm’s way more often than you might expect.
Jason Botchford over at The Athletic identified this play during Wednesday’s game and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about:
Pettersson does two things here to avoid contact. First, he chips the puck down the boards on the zone entry to avoid taking a hit at the blue line. That's pretty standard. Then, as he chases down his own dump-in, he sees Mark Jankowski, who is 6’4” and 212 lbs, bearing down on the puck.
What we might normally expect here is the initiation of a battle along the boards. Both players look like they’ll arrive on the puck at about the same time and a physical battle can commence. Instead, Pettersson completely avoids the battle by whipping his stick out and poking the puck further along the boards to Loui Eriksson.
Look how far away Pettersson ends up from Jankowski. Instead of meeting shoulder-to-shoulder in a battle for the puck, the puck is already gone and Pettersson is heading to the front of the net with two steps on Jankowski, who has run into the boards.
“I know I’m not the biggest guy and I would probably not hit a guy so he falls,” said Pettersson when I asked him about that type of play along the boards. “I’m aware of that. I just come up in a way to make a play without getting hit and come out first in that situation, so I’m not losing my speed or anything.”
That’s one way Pettersson will avoid getting roughed up in battles along the boards: he’ll negate the need for a battle and either come away with the puck or move it to a more advantageous area. He does laugh when I ask about his reach helping in other aspects of the game.
“Now you’re talking like I’m Zdeno Chara or, like I’m 250 [cm] long, but I think I’m a normal-sized guy, I don’t have extra-long arms,” he said. “I’m just trying to make plays.”
Of course, Pettersson is well aware that he’s going to get hit and will especially be targeted with physical play as he begins to make a name for himself in the NHL.
“When I have the puck, everybody will try to hit me,” he said. “I’m not thinking of trying to start a brawl if anyone wants to hit me or anything.”
“It’s hockey,” said head coach Travis Green. “There’s physical play in it, there’s hits. Good players have other players that try to be physical on them and I’m sure teams will try to be physical on [Pettersson], much like they are on a lot of skilled guys in the league.”
Green, however, isn’t worried about any of the challenges that might face Pettersson as he embarks on his first NHL road trip.
“It will be different on the road, but I’ve got a funny feeling he’ll be alright,” said Green with a smile. “He’s been alright so far.”