Paper Feature: It won’t be long before Elias Pettersson is the Canucks’ number one centre

In fact, it may have already happened.

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Any time a player has a hot start to a season, it can lead to a little over-excitement. When that start to the season is also the start to the career of the team’s most highly-hyped prospect, that excitement can reach a fever pitch.

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The first three games of Elias Pettersson’s NHL career could not have gone much better for the 19-year-old Swede. He scored his first career goal on his first career shot, zipping the puck top corner on the Flames’ Mike Smith. He added a slick assist in that game, then followed it up with two goals and another assist on his second game, and added one more assist in game three, for a total of six points in his first three NHL games.

What’s most impressive is that he’s doing this at centre.

Last year, Pettersson spent the bulk of his Swedish Hockey League season at right wing. On the wing he had fewer defensive responsibilities, didn’t need to take faceoffs, and had less pressure to make his linemates better. Transitioning to North America, the question was whether Pettersson could handle making the move to centre in the more physical, faster-paced NHL.

That question has been answered. The new question is how long it will be before he’s the de facto number one centre on the team.

The long-term hope has always been for Pettersson to take over as the first-line centre, bumping Bo Horvat down to the second line. It was assumed that would take a couple seasons, but Pettersson’s quick start has some believing he could take on that role a lot sooner.

After Saturday’s game against the Flames, Canucks head coach Travis Green was effusive with his praise of Pettersson, describing him as “dynamite” and saying he was the team’s “best player tonight.”

“You could see tonight that I started to play him more and I want to protect him defensively,” said Green. “I have to figure out how much or if I have to protect him. He hasn’t played centre and he’s going to get tough matchups and he’s handled it excellently.”

Can Pettersson handle the tough matchups that a first-line centre inevitably faces? That includes taking on top defensive pairings and being deployed power-against-power against the top offensive players in the NHL.

Those are the matchups being faced by Horvat’s line with Brock Boeser. Early on, that line has struggled. Boeser has just three shots on goal, while all of Horvat’s scoring has come on the power play. In terms of puck possession at even-strength, the Horvat line is getting crushed. Pettersson, meanwhile, is even teaching Horvat with his play on the ice.

“It’s incredible not only what he’s doing with the puck but away from it,” said Horvat. “He’s making stuff happen every shift and he’s a special player who’s only going to get better.

“I’m learning stuff from him, just his tenacity and how he’s hard on pucks and he has a lot confidence. To watch him do that stuff can help my game.”

As Green said, he’s discovering not just how much he has to protect Pettersson, but whether he has to protect him at all. So far, Pettersson has given every indication that he can handle whatever is thrown at him, and that includes his defensive game.

Pettersson is a nightmare in the neutral zone, breaking up passes and picking pockets. He’s positionally sound in the defensive zone and has a great sense of when to be aggressive and when to sit back and let the play come to him. It’s entirely possible that Pettersson is already prepared to face the top players on the opposition.

“I think really good players adapt well and it doesn’t take them long to realize little nuances that they might have to change,” said Green.

That adaptation may be happening even faster than Green expects. Pettersson’s ice time climbed from 9:46 in his first game to 19:10 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, leading all forwards. That was barely ahead of Horvat’s 18:51, but it’s a sign of how quickly Pettersson has earned Green’s trust.

There will still be some growing pains in the games to come, but Pettersson is well on his way to being the team’s first line centre.

Big Numbers

164 - Fun with early rate stats: At 2 points per game through his first three games, Pettersson is on pace for 164 points in 82 games, which would tie with Wayne Gretzky for the 10th-best season in NHL history.

13 - The Canucks got off to a rough start with the referees. Through their first two games, they were shorthanded 13 times, which was more than any other team in the league, including teams that has already played three games. They were only shorthanded twice against the Hurricanes, so maybe things are settling down.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to Nikolay Goldobin and Loui Eriksson, who have quickly found chemistry with Elias Pettersson. You could argue that has a lot more to do with Pettersson’s talent level, but Goldobin’s offensive creativity and Eriksson’s two-way game have helped support the young centre.

A stick-tap to Elias Pettersson’s parents, Torbjorn and Irene, who flew from Stockholm to watch their son’s first couple NHL games. The camera had plenty of reasons to find them during the television broadcasts and their enthusiasm and intensity was delightful to see.

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