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What did Elias Pettersson look like when he was at his best?

When Elias Pettersson is playing with confidence, he's a dynamic, creative force.
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Elias Pettersson looked like he could be one of the best players in the NHL not that long ago but has struggled to start the 2021-22 season.

It’s tough to watch the Vancouver Canucks these days. The team is struggling in seemingly every facet of the game but one of the more frustrating aspects is their offensive game.

With the addition of Conor Garland to the team’s forward group, offence wasn’t supposed to be an issue for the Canucks but they’re currently 28th in the NHL in goals per game. 

There are a few theories as to why the team’s struggling to score goals. The lack of puck-movers on defence, particularly on the right side, is a problem. When the defence can’t break the puck out or, alternatively, keep the puck in at the offensive blue line, it makes it a lot harder for the forwards to create scoring chances and sustained pressure.

The Canucks’ inability to create scoring chances off the rush speaks to the impact of the Canucks’ defence on the forwards. When the defence can’t quickly move the puck up ice, forwards are unable to create opportunities in transition, and often have to come back deeper to support the breakout. By then, the opposing team frequently has five skaters back, making it difficult to gain the offensive zone at all, let alone get to the inside for a quality scoring chance.

Of course, it doesn’t help the offence that the team’s franchise forward is struggling through the worst slump of his young career.

Elias Pettersson has just 10 points in 19 games, on pace for just 43 points, which is closer to the type of scoring you’d expect from a mediocre second-line centre. It gets worse: Pettersson has just two points at 5-on-5 and no goals at 5-on-5. 

Pettersson is one of the few players on the Canucks who you would expect to still be able to produce even with five men back defending against him. Instead, he’s been too often rendered invisible. 

It’s been too easy to forget just how good Pettersson can be. 

What did Pettersson look like at his best?

Since the current Canucks — and particularly the current version of Elias Pettersson — are so hard to watch, I spent some time with Pettersson back when he was much, much easier to watch: the 2019-20 season.

That was Pettersson’s second season and he proved his stellar rookie campaign was no fluke, putting up 66 points in just 68 games, while improving his already strong two-way game. He followed that up with 7 goals and 18 points in 17 playoff games. 

That Pettersson was a dominant, exciting player and I wanted to see him again, not just to remember better times, but to get a reminder of what Pettersson is capable of and what he looks like when he’s at his best.

I sat down with a 45-minute highlight reel of all of Pettersson’s points from 2019-20, including the preseason, All-Star Game, and playoffs.

A few things jump out from this video. One is the shot, whether his slap shot that hit 102.4 mph in the All-Star hardest shot competition or his wicked wrist shot that he seems able to get off no matter how contorted his body gets. 

But it’s not just how hard or accurate his shot is — it’s the complete lack of hesitation from Pettersson to shoot the puck.

Shots get off his stick immediately when he jumps on a loose puck and that lack of hesitation extends to other elements of his game. He finds teammates quickly when they’re open and even when he’s holding onto the puck, he’s never just holding it — it’s constantly in motion with quick little stick handles and he holds onto it for a purpose.

This season, there’s been so much hesitation from Pettersson and it’s hard to see it as anything but a lack of confidence. For instance, there was this shot on goal against the Vegas Golden Knights this season, where Pettersson gets the puck in a dangerous area, but seems to hesitate before jamming the puck into the goaltender’s pads.

I miss the confident Pettersson who would pull off moves like the below under pressure in the defensive zone, knowing that he could evade opponents and avoid a turnover in a dangerous area. Combined with his willingness to go to the ice to take away a potential shooting lane and his ability to win the puck in the first place, this is part of why he was so effective defensively.

At his best, Pettersson uses his whole body to win the puck, whether he’s throwing a reverse hit to create space or going to his knees to break up a pass or shot. He would also use his body to make his passes more effective.

Watch how often Pettersson lays the puck off for a teammate and then immediately drives to the net, taking an opposing player with him or tying up the player’s stick. That’s not something we’ve seen much from Pettersson this season.

Overall, Petersson gets a lot of his points from going to the net or the inside of the ice, getting tips on shots and jumping on rebounds.

Pettersson on the power play: not just one timers

Then there’s the power play, which has struggled for the Canucks this season.

Pettersson had 24 power play points in the 2019-20 season and they came in a variety of ways.

There are several power play points for Pettersson from the left faceoff circle, showing that he doesn’t have to be stapled to the right faceoff circle for one-timers. In fact, many of his power play points come from movement, including rotating down low to the goal line or front of the net.

Penalty kills have taken away Pettersson’s one-timer this season, but that’s nothing new. What we see in this video is how Pettersson still finds ways to take advantage of that attention and does so quickly and confidently, whether that means faking the shot then sending a wrist shot into traffic or finding an open teammate with a slap pass, like this beautiful setup to Brock Boeser.

Overall, watching Pettersson thrive in his sophomore season made me all the more sure that he can play at that level again. 

I want to see more of this Pettersson: the speed, determination, and incredible hand-eye coordination.

Hopefully, that Pettersson shows up again soon.