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Canucks' Elias Pettersson has struggled like this before

"I’m trying out there. It’s maybe not going the best way right now, but I’m trying. I want to win.”
Elias Pettersson has struggled through the first two rounds of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Vancouver Canucks’ playoff run has been full of great moments, from Brock Boeser’s hat trick in a stunning comeback to Arturs Silovs’ series-clinching shutout. It’s been an emotionally-stirring journey for Canucks fans, reminding them of just how magical playoff hockey can be.

The playoffs have raised one major concern, however: the performance of Elias Pettersson. 

After 89 points in the regular season, Pettersson has been borderline invisible in the postseason, putting up just one goal and three assists in ten games. While he’s come through in a few key moments, those moments have been too few and too far between for a player of Pettersson’s caliber.

"I'm trying out there."

At his best, Pettersson is comparable with some of the best players in the NHL — a true game-breaking talent worthy of the $11.6 million cap hit he’s set to have next season. But Canucks fans haven’t seen him perform anywhere near that level in these playoffs and he was falling well short of that level late in the regular season as well.

Game 4 in Edmonton was a low point, as his head coach called out Pettersson as one of “half a dozen passengers.” It’s a game that was up for grabs despite how poorly the team played, a game that could have used a player like Pettersson to step up and make a difference. 

He came close, to be fair, with a scoring chance that caught the shaft of Calvin Pickard’s stick on a short-side shot. But one chance isn’t enough for someone like Pettersson.

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Pettersson seemed overwhelmed, with no answers for reporters because he seemingly had no answers for himself.

“Obviously, myself, I know I can be better,” said Pettersson. “I’m trying out there. It’s maybe not going the best way right now, but I’m trying. I want to win.”

When asked why he has struggled to generate chances at his usual clip if he’s not injured, Pettersson could only say, “Good question.” When asked if he had an answer, he simply said, “No.”

Canucks fans have seen Pettersson like this before

Perhaps, reading between the lines, he didn’t have an answer to that question because one of the clauses is false: he is injured. To be clear, that’s just speculation, even if it’s speculation that is awfully hard to avoid.

But it’s the playoffs, after all, and no one wants to admit to an injury and even if an injury exists, it’s never allowed as an excuse. Everyone plays through injuries in the playoffs — it’s part of the mythmaking of the Stanley Cup. It’s arguably too much a part of it, with players causing serious long-term damage to their bodies in pursuit of the Cup.

As much as Pettersson hasn’t looked like himself in these playoffs, Canucks fans have seen him like this before.

In the first half of the 2021-22 season, Pettersson looked like a shadow of the player who had electrified fans in his first couple of seasons. Through the first 37 games of that season, Pettersson had just 6 goals and 17 points — an average of just 0.46 points per game.

That looks awfully similar to Pettersson’s four points through ten games in these playoffs.

More than that, Pettersson was averaging 4.58 shots per 60 minutes of ice time at 5-on-5 through the first half of 2021-22. In these playoffs, he’s averaging 4.54 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. For context, that’s eighth on the Canucks. During the regular season, Pettersson was fourth on the Canucks with 6.28 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. 

Pettersson is playing 'pause hockey'

More than just the numerical similarities to the start of his 2021-22 season, Pettersson simply looks off in the same way he looked off then. There’s a hesitance that is hindering him from playing at his peak that looks the same as his hesitance in the first half of that season.

It’s what Tocchet called “pause hockey” after Game 4.

“There’s times there we have some guys, you know where the puck’s gonna go, you just gotta get there before the other guy, and I think we’re pausing,” said Tocchet. “Some guys are playing pause hockey.”

Justin Bourne broke down what “pause hockey” looks like for Pettersson in an article for Sportsnet, noting how tentative he has played. He pointed out key moments where Pettersson looked unsure of where to go or what to do. Instead of trusting his instincts, he was overthinking.

“It’s not that they’re not working,” said Tocchet of the players he called passengers. “It’s more of a second-and-a-half delay in their brain. I’d rather them be more assertive.”

Pettersson looks like a player struggling with a complete lack of confidence and defaulting to the safe play. It seems like he’s questioning how much he can do to help his team win, so he’s falling back on trying not to be the reason his team loses.

“Were I a coach one of my core offensive tenets would come from my belief that you can’t volunteer to beat yourself: you have to ask the question of the defence,” said Bourne. “You ask the defence ‘can you stop me?’ and you’ll be surprised when the answer is, a few times a game, ‘nope.’”

Right now, Pettersson isn’t forcing the Oilers to stop him — he’s stopping himself. 

Pettersson bounced back from his 2021-22 struggles

At his best, Pettersson demands the puck, whether from his teammates or his opponents. He plays with a confidence bordering on arrogance, knowing that he can stickhandle his way out of danger or make a shot that no one else can make to beat a goaltender. He slashes into the offensive zone and forces opponents to come up with a great defensive play to get the puck away from him or to take a penalty.

But it’s tough to have that confidence when you’re playing through pain.

That was the big secret behind Pettersson’s slow start to the 2021-22 season. His previous season was ended by a significant wrist injury that he described as like “trying to shoot with a knife in my wrist.” At the beginning of the 2021-22 season, he said he was back to 100 per cent, but admitted later in the season that wasn’t the case.

Pettersson followed up his slow start with an outstanding second half to the 2021-22 season. He put up 23 goals and 51 points in his final 43 games. Then, in the 2022-23 season, Pettersson broke out with a fantastic 39-goal, 102-point season that firmly established him as one of the NHL’s best centres.

That’s encouraging for Canucks fans concerned about his new eight-year contract. Clearly, Pettersson is a player who can figure things out and bounce back.

But Pettersson doesn’t have half a season, let alone an offseason, to sort this out. He might only have two more games.

"I’m not sure he’s getting, sometimes, the help he needs"

Better — or at least different — linemates might help. Pettersson’s most frequent linemates in the playoffs have been Ilya Mikheyev and Nils Höglander, while Tocchet has recently tried Linus Karlsson and Sam Lafferty in Höglander’s place.

Mikheyev has zero points in the playoffs. He’s scored one goal in his last 60 games.

Lafferty has zero points in the playoffs. He has two goals in his last 33 games. 

Karlsson has never tallied a single point in any NHL game.

As for Höglander, he's seemed overwhelmed by his first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After a great regular season where he scored 24 goals, he has just one assist in the postseason. His best game was arguably his last — Game 2 against the Oilers — but he still found himself in Tocchet’s doghouse and has been a healthy scratch for the last two games.

As much as Pettersson is a player who should make his linemates better, there’s no denying that he’s been saddled with wingers who haven’t provided much help. Mikheyev has no finish, Höglander is still raw, Lafferty is a fourth-liner, and Karlsson is an AHLer — none of them are legitimate top-six forwards.

Consider this: Mikheyev was Pettersson’s most frequent linemate during the regular season too. In around 466 5-on-5 minutes with Mikheyev, Pettersson averaged 2.19 points per 60 minutes. That’s pretty good and would rank around 60th among NHL forwards with at least 500 minutes played at 5-on-5.

In around 623 minutes without Mikheyev, Pettersson averaged 2.79 points per 60 minutes, which would rank seventh among NHL forwards, just behind Artemi Panarin and just ahead of Sidney Crosby. 

In other words, elite production.

It’s fair to ask if the snakebitten Mikheyev is dragging Pettersson down with him. 

“Maybe it could help,” said Pettersson regarding different linemates. “But also, at the end of the day, I can only focus on what I can do. Obviously, I want to be better, I want to be the difference-maker. It hasn’t gone the way I want it to be…I can’t dwell on it too much.”

Tocchet had to admit that Pettersson’s linemates haven’t helped so far.

“With Petey, in all fairness to him, I’m not sure he’s getting, sometimes, the help he needs,” said Tocchet. “But in saying that, I think he still can drive play a little bit better. I think, when the puck comes to him, he can move his feet and be more dynamic. He’s got the skillset, you know?”

Could Höglander and Podkolzin draw back into the lineup?

Tocchet said that he’s looking at changing up the linemate, noting that Vasily Podkolzin and Arshdeep Bains are options to get in the lineup. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Nils Höglander get another opportunity after a couple of healthy scratches.

Tocchet also said that he’s not interested in breaking up J.T. Miller’s line or Elias Lindholm’s line, as those two lines have been playing well and producing. Pettersson’s line, on the other hand, is begging for a change.

Perhaps both Podkolzin and Höglander could draw into the lineup on Pettersson’s wings, bumping Mikheyev down to the fourth line. It’s an intriguing prospect for one simple reason: those were the linemates who helped Pettersson break out of his funk in the 2021-22 season. 

Höglander, Pettersson, and Podkolzin formed an absolutely dominant line that season if only for a brief period of time. With Höglander and Podkolzin getting sent down to the AHL for more seasoning, that line hasn’t been reunited since. Perhaps, with nothing else working for Pettersson, the time for that reunion is now.