The Canucks’ opening night roster for the 2019-20 season has changed significantly from the one that took the ice a year ago. Ten players on this year’s team — just short of half the roster — weren’t on the team to start last season.
Despite all these roster changes, the Canucks hopes of making the playoffs primarily rest on the shoulders of one young man: Elias Pettersson.
If that’s overstating things, it’s not by much. Certainly, the Canucks’ goaltending will need to be as good or better than last season, the new-look defence will need to transition the puck up ice more effectively, and there’s plenty of pressure on players like Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and J.T. Miller to produce points. After all, hockey is a team sport, and there’s a limit to how much one player can influence the result of a game or a season.
At the same time, if Elias Pettersson doesn’t follow up his remarkable rookie year with a sensational sophomore season, the Canucks aren’t going anywhere.
Fortunately for the Canucks and their fans, Pettersson is a perfectionist and completely committed to constant improvement. He has no interest in slowing down in his second season and even less interest in talking about the dreaded sophomore slump. When asked how he felt about the concept of a “sophomore slump” he took a moment to consider how he might answer.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it and I saw something about me,” Pettersson started, but a moment later reconsidered. “Whatever, I don't want to answer that.”
Let’s be clear: it wasn’t a prickly moment. There was no “death stare” involved and it was all very good-natured. He simply didn’t want to talk about a sophomore slump. For someone so used to being questioned at every turn — he specifically brought up being doubted for his size — the idea of a sophomore slump seemed like just another reason to doubt him, and Pettersson has no interest in doubts.
You could argue that Petterson has already undergone the equivalent of a sophomore slump. The difference between his pre and post-All-Star break numbers is stark: before the All-Star break, Pettersson had 23 goals and 45 points in 40 games; after the All-Star break, he had just 5 goals and 21 points in 31 games.
That’s the difference between a 47-goal pace over an 82-game season and a 13-goal pace.
Over the final 23 games of the season, Pettersson had just two goals and both of them came on the power play. He hasn’t scored an even-strength goal in 28 games.
Whether that’s due to fatigue, teams focusing their defensive efforts on stopping Pettersson, or just plain bad luck, that’s a significant slump. It’s the kind of slump that galvanizes a player like Pettersson, driving him to get even better in the summer and avoid a similar slump this season.
“This season I knew what I was preparing for,” said Pettersson. “I know what to expect now and I know how the NHL schedule is.
“I feel much more stable, I feel more balanced. I feel like I'm having more control of my body and feel I can push off harder in my strides as well.”
Pettersson’s size was a constant story heading into last season. Even this season, fans were quick to suggest he’d added more weight, comparing his transformation to Steve Rogers becoming Captain America. Adding size and weight, however, wasn’t on the top of Pettersson’s priorities in the off-season: strength and conditioning were.
“More conditioning work and of course to get stronger,” he said. “I felt like I got tired at the end of the last season, I didn't have a hundred percent, so that that has been priority one for me this summer.”
Pettersson also suggested he’ll be looking to shoot more this season, which is definitely a positive. One of the few concerns about his rookie season, aside from his late-season slump, was his lack of shots. Among historical comparables, Pettersson had by far the lowest shot rate and the highest shooting percentage. Since his shooting percentage is likely to regress — even the best snipers in the NHL can’t maintain a 19.4% shooting percentage — making up for that regression by getting more shots will be key.
“I go with my first thoughts every time,” said Pettersson, emphasizing that he can’t get away from trusting his instincts on the ice. “I think I was trying to find a pass way too much in the second half of the season and I scored more myself first half of the season, so [I will be] definitely looking to shoot often this season.”
One way that Pettersson can create more shots for himself and be more effective overall is by creating more time and space for himself with the puck. To that end, Pettersson made an adjustment to his skates in the off-season, changing the profile of his blade to one that should help him be more effective in tight quarters.
“I’ve been playing with Detroit 2, I think it was, for a long time and I felt like, in small areas — small turnarounds, cutbacks, tight turns — I felt a little uncomfortable doing those in my last profile,” he said. “So I tried different profiles this summer and came up with Quad Zero that I like.
“I think my game depends a lot on small areas. I think this can definitely help, or I hope it will help me, so I can get more time and can get more separation with the puck.”
Those are the details that Pettersson focussed on as he prepared for his second season with the Canucks. With that kind of attention to detail, how could he have possibly had time to worry about a sophomore slump?