Elias Pettersson is off to an unbelievable start, scoring 10 goals and 16 points in his first 10 NHL games. What might be more impressive is how much of that scoring is coming at even-strength rather than being buoyed by the power play.
At 5-on-5, Pettersson has seven goals and three assists, meaning he’s a point-per-game even without the power play. Taking into account his ice time, Pettersson is the top scorer in the NHL at 5-on-5, with 4.67 points per hour.
For the vast majority of that time at 5-on-5, Pettersson has been joined at the hip with Nikolay Goldobin. About 102 of the 128 or so minutes that Pettersson has played at 5-on-5 have been with Goldobin and all but one of Pettersson’s 5-on-5 points has come with Goldobin on the ice with him.
(Side note: the only reason Goldobin wasn’t on the ice for one of Pettersson’s points is because Bo Horvat stepped in for him to take a defensive zone faceoff.)
Essentially, Goldobin has been Pettersson’s partner in crime right from puck drop in the season opener. All of Pettersson’s outrageous success has come with Goldobin on his wing at even strength. They even sit side-by-side on the plane, even if they mostly just quietly watch movies and TV shows.
When things are going well, it’s easy to take a hands-off approach. Why mess with a good thing and risk ruining some growing chemistry? And yet, there are those in the Canucks fanbase who suggest that Pettersson needs a new winger, as Goldobin isn’t doing enough with the opportunity of playing with the Canucks’ best player.
To a certain extent, it’s an understandable argument. As much as Pettersson has thrived, Goldobin has just one goal and seven points in 16 games. While that’s already halfway to his career high in a season and on-pace for a decent 36 points, which would be right in line with projections, you might expect more out of someone playing with the electrifying Pettersson.
For instance, Pettersson made a dazzling rush up the ice at the end of the second period against the Detroit Red Wings, setting up Goldobin at the tail end of it. With a chance to put the Canucks up 3-1, Goldobin pulled the puck wide, missing the net entirely.
Pettersson doing Pettersson things at the end of the 2nd period. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/E6ifcaskzT— Sportsnet 650 (@Sportsnet650) November 7, 2018
It’s easy to look at a play like that and suggest that a better finisher would mean Pettersson would have more assists, but that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at it. Besides, it’s not like Goldobin is actually a terrible finisher, even if he’s primarily a playmaker in his approach to the game.
Goldobin has plenty of shots, leading all Canucks at 5-on-5 with 25 shots on goal. He’s getting his opportunities from quality areas of the ice, with 26 scoring chances according to Natural Stat Trick, second on the Canucks behind Loui Eriksson. The issue is that the puck isn’t going in for Goldobin.
With just one goal, Goldobin has a shooting percentage of 3.2%. Given his shooting percentage was 16.9% heading into the season, it’s fair to assume that the puck will start going in for Goldobin more as the season progresses. When it does, you can expect Pettersson’s assists to catch up to his goals.
As a reminder, here’s what we’ve seen from Goldobin in the past: goals like this…
...and even this.
Clearly, Goldobin is capable of scoring highlight reel goals, but he’s also shown good finish on passing plays in the past. He was consistently an above-average shooter in the AHL as well, finishing on 18.0% of his shots.
Some of Goldobin’s goal-scoring slump can be chalked up to bad luck, some might be from gripping the stick to tight as the slump continues, while some is just from great goaltending, like when Mike Smith turned a highlight reel goal into a highlight reel save.
In any case, the main contribution that Goldobin brings to Pettersson’s line is not his goal-scoring ability, but his creative playmaking. Goldobin is one of the few players on the Canucks that can keep pace with Pettersson in the offensive creativity department.
“We’re pretty good offensive guys. We think hockey the same, all three of us,” said Pettersson about playing with Goldobin and Brock Boeser, after jokingly describing their line as a “good defensive line.”
The Swede and the Russian seem to speak the same language on the ice, appearing right where the other needs him to be to receive a pass or support a rush. Goldobin has been excellent at gaining the zone with possession of the puck and creating opportunities for his teammates, but hasn’t picked up assists.
As Darryl Keeping at CanucksArmy broke down, Goldobin has been a fantastic playmaker this season, with a high rate of shot assists. Those shot assists just haven't turned into goal assists.
“Currently, Goldobin is a snake-bitten play-maker who’d be racking up assists if it wasn’t for the team shooting a measly 3% following his golden dishes,” said Keeping a couple weeks ago. That number has improved and Goldobin has four assists in his last four games.
In many ways, it’s less that Pettersson has been held back by a lack of finish from his linemates, but Goldobin.
Of course, it’s certainly possible that another winger would thrive alongside Pettersson and somehow lift him to even higher heights. Perhaps Jonathan Dahlen, who has shown some finish in Utica, even if he has just five points in 11 games. Maybe Jake Virtanen should get a chance to play on his off-wing and use his ability to gain the zone and his excellent shot, though he lacks the same creativity as Pettersson.
What we’ve seen so far from Pettersson and Goldobin doesn’t leave much reason for experimentation, however. They have a 56.5% corsi together — 59.2% when with Eriksson — and high-danger scoring chances are 30 to 15 for the Canucks with those two on the ice at 5-on-5 according to Natural Stat Trick.
Without Goldobin, Pettersson’s underlying numbers are significantly worse — 26.5% corsi, with high-danger chances 10-to-1 for the opposition — but those are largely junk minutes. Mostly, those minutes are at the tail end of shifts when Pettersson has been unable to chance with the rest of his line and he and his new linemates get trapped in the defensive zone.
There will certainly be chances this season for Pettersson to get away from Goldobin and play with some other linemates, but it shouldn’t come while Pettersson is on such a hot streak with his current linemates. So far this season, Goldobin with Pettersson is working; the Canucks should wait until there’s a good reason to make a change.