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How worried should Canucks fans be about Elias Pettersson?

With a new $7.35 million contract in hand, Elias Pettersson's start to the season hasn't been up to par.
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The Vancouver Canucks' Elias Pettersson carries the puck past Ryan Dzingel of the Carolina Hurricanes. photo: Dan Toulgoet / Glacier Media

Elias Pettersson came out of the gate firing on all cylinders in his rookie season. He scored his first NHL goal on the first shot of his career and had 10 goals in his first 10 games. He had his first five-point game just nine games into his career.

His second season was a similar story: he was held pointless in the first two games but then took off with 18 points in his next 10 games. 

Last season, however, Pettersson struggled early. He had just one point in his first six games. He picked it up after that — he was a point-per-game for the next 20 games until a wrist injury ended his season — but his slow start definitely didn’t help the Canucks.

There might be a lesson in last season, however. Just as fans shouldn’t have been too worried about Pettersson after his first six games last season, they probably shouldn’t be too worried after six games this season.

Pettersson had three points in the Canucks’ season-opening six-game road trip. That’s actually a better start than last season! Case closed, no one should be worried, time to pack up and head home.

It’s not that simple, of course. It’s not just Pettersson’s lack of points that has Canucks fans concerned but the way he’s playing.

“My game is definitely not where I want it to be."

Everything seems a little off with Pettersson. Passes aren’t connecting, he’s giving the puck away in the defensive zone, and he’s been largely unable to get inside the dots — between the faceoff circles where the most dangerous chances are generated.

Pettersson, of course, is well aware that his play has not been up to par.

“My game is definitely not where I want it to be,” said Elias Pettersson to Thomas Drance of The Athletic during the team’s road trip. “I know I’ll find my game eventually and play to the level I expect.”

After Monday’s practice back in Vancouver, Pettersson asserted that he wasn’t worried about his slow start — “It gives you guys something to talk about,” he quipped — but also went into more detail about his game. He said he needed to simplify — still try to be creative and make plays but recognize when the simple play is better.

“I feel like when things aren't going the way I want to, the worst thing I've learned is to try to do it yourself,” said Pettersson. “It's a team game and your teammates are helping you out there. I feel like I've kinda been doing that a little bit, trying to deke my guy instead of making the easy play — give-and-go, take a new spot.”

The key, according to Pettersson, is to think less.

“The game is so fast out there, you've just gotta react quick and play with your instincts, and I feel like I've been thinking maybe a little bit too much,” said Pettersson.

Playing instictively comes down to confidence. It’s hard to trust your instincts as a player when nothing seems to be going right on the ice. Instead of reading and reacting on the ice, players get in their heads and second-guess themselves.

"He hasn't played an NHL hockey game for a while."

Pettersson’s struggles are definitely showing up in the numbers, though it should be noted that six games is a small sample size.

Elias Pettersson 5v5 stats via Natural Stat Trick

At 5-on-5, Pettersson is getting fewer shot attempts and shots on goal so far this season but, most concerning is that so few of his shots register as scoring chances. The last two seasons, he’s averaged over 7 scoring chances per 60 minutes of ice time; so far this season, he’s averaging just 2.80.

How could that not be concerning? 

That’s where other factors come into play.

“It's not just the training camp — he missed the last 30 games of last season,” said head coach Travis Green. “He hasn't played an NHL hockey game for a while. He's still a young guy and we know how good he can be, we know how good he is. But his game's gonna slowly improve, is what we're expecting.”

It’s not just that Pettersson missed so many games. Prior to this season, the last time Pettersson played with J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser — the once-dominant Lotto Line — was March 2 against the Winnipeg Jets. The chemistry that at one point made them one of the most dangerous lines in hockey just hasn’t been there through the first six games.

Combine 30 games missed, a long recovery from a painful wrist injury that he described as like getting stabbed with a knife every time he tried to take a shot, no training camp, and trying to rediscover chemistry with linemates — maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Pettersson hasn’t lit up the league in his first six games this season.

So, should Canucks fans be worried? While there are some legitimate causes for concern, there are also some clear reasons to believe that Pettersson’s struggles will only be temporary. Pettersson is simply too good, too talented, and too driven to struggle like this for much longer and his track record shows that he’s capable of breaking out at a moment’s notice.

It’s entirely possible that 20 games from now, Pettersson will once again be leading the Canucks in scoring and this six-game start will feel like a blip. Have patience.