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Whether its scoring goals or winning faceoffs, Elias Pettersson keeps finding ways to get better

Like Liam Neeson in Taken, Elias Pettersson has a particular set of skills; skills that make him a nightmare for opposing teams.
The continually-improving Elias Pettersson's attention to detail is the key to his game. photo: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

Like Liam Neeson in Taken, Elias Pettersson has a particular set of skills; skills that make him a nightmare for opposing teams.

Most of those skills are obvious enough on the surface: a bomb of a one-timer, a wicked wristshot, slick hands, shifty skating, and pretty playmaking. Dig a little deeper and you find a bevy of other skills away from the puck: great defensive reads, savvy stick lifts, surprising reverse hits, and diving poke checks. 

It’s a remarkable bag of tricks, but Pettersson’s most important skill is the one that keeps making that bag deeper: an ability to constantly get better.

Even from Game 1 to Game 2 of the Canucks series against the Golden Knights, Pettersson made changes and adapted, putting up three points while controlling puck possession in a way he wasn’t able to in Game 1. It’s not just that he’s found another gear in the playoffs, but that he’s constantly changing gears to find the one best suited for current driving conditions.

In many ways, the ability to improve the most important skill in hockey, particularly when scouting prospects, but also the most difficult to spot. The trick with scouting is not finding the best current player – that’s often insultingly easy — but to find the player that will become the best player a year, five years, or ten years in the future. Sometimes they’re the same, but not always.

“They’re 17, 18 years old, and it’s not just drive,” said the Canucks then-director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett two years ago. “It’s the willingness to accept coaching or to make changes with your body and what you fuel it with. Maybe some feel like they don’t need to do this or there’s a corner to cut, and it hurts them down the line. It’s not just the will and the drive — that’s part of it — but it’s also being receptive, being coachable, and also having enough skill to still make plays.”

Pettersson has it all: the will, the drive, the skill, and the coachability.

Although, in some cases, there’s only so much a coach can teach an elite talent in certain areas of the game.

“I’m not going to get into the mind of a highly-skilled individual, I was by far not that type of player,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “I let those players play and do what they can do well. We ask Petey to compete, we ask him to play away from the puck, commit to certain things on the ice that are necessary to win, and he buys into all that.”

That buy-in and competitive fire leads to long hours for Pettersson.

“He puts in the work,” said Troy Stecher. “He comes to the rink every day with a purpose, he’s staying out late after practice to work on little things that make a big difference in the long run during the game. I think those superstars, the guys that are his caliber, they just kind of have that look in their eye where they want to be the best and they’re going to do whatever they can to be the best. I don’t think Petey’s any different than that.”

“He goes about it quietly, but he’s a fierce competitor,” said Green. “We’re lucky that we have young guys that are humble and they also want to get better. They understand that they still have things to learn as well, even though they have exceptional talent.”

One of those things Pettersson needed to learn is faceoffs. While Green quickly trusted Pettersson to play centre in his rookie year, despite his size and playing wing the previous season in the SHL, he was all-too happy to take Pettersson out of the faceoff circle this season. With J.T. Miller, a strong faceoff man, on his wing, Pettersson took just 141 faceoffs all season, sixth on the Canucks. That averages out to around two faceoffs per game.

It’s understandable: Miller had the best faceoff percentage on the Canucks this season at 59.2%, while Pettersson struggled at just 41.8%. 

That’s why it’s been a surprise to see Pettersson suddenly taking his fair share of faceoffs in the postseason and holding his own. Pettersson is averaging twice as many faceoffs per game in the playoffs, but particularly over the last few games. On Tuesday, Pettersson took 12 faceoffs, the most he’s taken all season. It suddenly seems like Green trusts Pettersson in the faceoff circle.

Perhaps this is a reason why: he’s taken a big step up in his winning percentage. Pettersson has gone 25-for-49 on faceoffs, 51.0%. While a far cry from a faceoff ace, that’s solidly respectable.

You can credit that, again, to long hours of work in practice with Manny Malhotra, one-time faceoff whiz, now assistant coach with the Canucks.

“Manny does a good job working with them. It feels like I’ve been removed from the game for a while, so I don’t get down and dirty in the circle with them,” said Green, who rocked a 54.1% winning percentage in his day, “but Manny gets in the trenches and really works with them and studies film with them.”

All that work has paid off. While the focus when Pettersson scored on Tuesday night was on the fantastic deke he put on Robin Lehner, a key moment leading up to that goal was the hard-fought faceoff win by Pettersson. After tying up William Karlsson’s stick, he pivoted quickly to kick the puck back to Tyler Toffoli.

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Pettersson hasn’t just learned from Malhotra, however. He’s also picked up some tricks from his teammates.

For instance, there was this faceoff win from Game 6 against the St. Louis Blues, where Pettersson pulled out Miller’s go-to move: a pivoting swipe on the forehand.

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It remains to be seen if Pettersson’s improved proficiency will persist long term, but it certainly looks like faceoffs are a part of his deepening bag of tricks. While the importance of faceoffs are frequently overstated, it does provide one distinct benefit: it gives Green more options with the Canucks’ lineup.

Green places a lot of importance on faceoffs and a line that he can’t trust to win at least 50% of draws is a line that isn’t going to get many shifts together. Being able to line up Miller with Pettersson all season gave him a comfort level with that line that allowed them to play big minutes with Miller taking nearly all the faceoffs.

In the playoffs, however, Green has tinkered with his lines significantly to get the best matchups against the Blues and Golden Knights. In Game 2 against Vegas, that meant putting the returning Tyler Toffoli with Pettersson and Tanner Pearson and trusting Pettersson to take the faceoffs for that line.

That frees up Miller to play with Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser, forming a dangerous second line that can match up against the best lines the opponents have to offer, while also putting up points.

Faceoffs were one area where Pettersson needed to improve and did so; are there others?

During Tuesday night’s Game 2, former scout for the Florida Panthers (and managing editor for CanucksArmy) Rhys Jessop made an observation on Twitter that irked some Canucks fans: that Pettersson is not a very good skater.

The thing is, Jessop is not wrong, which is a very good thing, because it’s something that can likely be improved. Pettersson’s deficiencies in technique and lower body strength haven’t prevented him from being a star for the Canucks that is second in the NHL in scoring. In fact, those deficiencies haven’t prevented him from being one of the fastest and most elusive skaters in the NHL.

Just imagine, then, if Pettersson approaches his skating with the same attention to detail that he approaches other elements of his game, like his shot. When Pettersson decided that he needed to improve his shot, he was incredibly fastidious.

“Before his first season with Vaxjo (SHL) in 2017-18,” read an article from Emily Kaplan at ESPN. “Pettersson wasn't pleased with where his shot was. He identified 12 different motor movements that composed his shot, then spent 15 minutes after practice every day to work on each component individually until he was satisfied.”

If Pettersson identifies his skating as an area where he can improve, it seems logical he would break it down into its individual components and work on it in the same way. And if he’s already a superstar with quick and elusive skating, just imagine how much better he can get.