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Looking at Rookie NHL Seasons From the Best Teenage SHL Players

Elias Pettersson will come into the 2018-19 season with high expectations. How does he compare to these Swedish standout rookies?

NHL: NHL Draft
June 23, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Elias Pettersson puts on a team jersey after being selected as the number five overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that expectations for Elias Pettersson are high.

After breaking Kent Nilssons rookie scoring record, leading his team to an SHL championship, being crowned MVP and getting painted gold, Pettersson had a season for the ages. His legendary and historic season for the Vaxjo Lakers of the SHL had done nothing but build hype for his expected NHL debut in 2018-19.

Throughout his season, we’ve heard about some of the comparables for teenagers in the SHL. Today I’m going to look at the best seasons by teenagers in NHL history, and how they fared in their rookie NHL seasons.

While the results are all over the map, there isn’t a single player on here who didn’t go on to carve out a solid NHL career. That places extra pressure on Pettersson, but based on his skill set, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t succeed.

Before we look at some notable SHL (formerly SEL) seasons by teenagers, let’s take a glance at Pettersson’s historic output from this season.

Elias Pettersson (2017-18)

44 GP, 24-32-56, (1.27 points-per-game)

Pettersson rewrote the history books this season by finishing with 56 points in 44 games. Those 56 points were the most ever by a teenager in the SHL, breaking Kent Nilsson’s record by two points.

He dazzled with his creativity throughout the season, showing that he can create by both setting up goals shooting with wicked accuracy. Unlike the Sedin twins, who have a tendency to look pass-first, Pettersson has no problem keeping the puck and rippling the mesh.

2017 NHL Draft - Round One
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: Elias Pettersson poses for photos after being selected fifth overall by the Vancouver Canucks during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

He kept up his stellar play in the postseason with 10 goals and 19 points in 13 games, helping the Vaxjo Lakers dismantle Skelleftea AIK. They swept the series 4-0, outscoring their opponents 20-1.

It seemed like he was a couple years away from suiting up when he was first drafted, but this narrative changed after his awe-inspiring play in Sweden. He’s almost a lock to suit up for the Canucks next year, so how will his rookie season compare with these former greats?

Kent Nilsson (1975-76)

SHL: 36 GP, 28-26-54 (1.5 points-per-game), 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 80 GP, 40-53-93 (1.08 points-per-game), 23 years old

Let’s start by saying that no matter how Elias Pettersson’s career goes, breaking the record for most points by a rookie is something he’s going to remember for the rest of his life. Many in Sweden will likely remember him for this historic season above any of his future accomplishments in the NHL.

While Pettersson did break Nilsson’s 42-year-old record, Nilsson can still say that he had the best rookie season in SHL history.

Pettersson beat Nilsson out by two points, but Nilsson’s 54 points in 36 games meant he averaged 1.5 points-per-game. That’s not only the best mark by a teenagar in the SHL, but it’s the 9th-highest in league history.

In a high-scoring era of hockey, Nilsson carried over his SEL success to North America. He started off in the WHA for two seasons, before making his debut with the Atlanta Flames in 1979-80 as a 23-year-old.

Nilsson hit the 40-goal plateau and 93 points in his rookie season, and followed that up with a 131-point season in 1980-81. Even for his era-adjusted numbers, Nilsson still hit 33 goals and 78 points as a rookie.

Although Nilsson remains a viable comparable to Pettersson, there’s no doubt that playing in completely different era’s separates them.

Kent Nilsson’s stats via Hockey Reference.

Peter Forsberg (1992-93)

SHL: 39 GP, 23-24-47 (1.21 points-per-game), 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 47 GP, 15-35-50 (1.11 points-per-game), 21 years old

One of the most prolific scorers in NHL history also had one of the best SHL seasons as a teenager. With 1.21 points-per-game as a 19-year-old in the SHL, one might argue that Forsberg is the most comparable player to Pettersson on this list.

Even though Forsberg posted these eye-popping numbers as a 19-year-old, it’s not like they exactly came out of left field. This was actually Forsberg’s third year playing against men in Sweden. He started playing for MODO in 1990-91 as a 17-year-old.

Forsberg is another example of how development curves have changed over time. Pettersson is nearly a lock to make the Canucks roster after his MVP season. Forsberg, despite posting similar numbers, stayed in MODO for another full season, before joining the Quebec Nordiques post-lockout in 1994-95.

Peter Forsberg’s stats via Hockey Reference.

Forsberg took the league by storm immediately when he joined the Nordiques. His 50 points in 45 games was enough to win him the Calder Trophy.

As a close comparable, does that mean Pettersson’s shot at the Calder next season is real? It’s much too soon to say, although it should be noted that Forsberg was 21 when he was awarded the trophy, whereas Pettersson will still be 20. Even though the NHL is a young man’s game, age does matter.

Henrik and Daniel Sedin (1999-00)

Hank (SHL): 50 GP 9-38-47 (0.94 points-per-game), 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 82 GP, 9-20-29, (0.35 points-per-game), 20 years old

Danny (SHL): 50 GP 19-26-45 (0.9 points-per-game), 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 82 GP, 20-14-34, (0.41 points-per-game), 20 years old

The two most beloved players in Canucks history turned in fantastic seasons during their draft plus-one year. It didn’t translate into immediate NHL success, but they were still able to establish their skill against men as teenagers.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Edmonton Oilers
Apr 7, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin (33) and Daniel Sedin (22) are named the second and third star of their final NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place.
Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

What might be more impressive however, are the seasons they had before being drafted second and third overall by the Brian Burke. Daniel had 21 goals and 42 points in 50 games for MODO as an 18-year-old. That’s the best season in history by a player that age, although two other players on this list did have a better point-per-game total at the same age. Henrik was impressive as well with 12 goals and 34 points in 49 games, but you can see why Burke went with Daniel at second overall.

Unlike Forsberg and others on this list, the Sedins didn’t jump in and dominate in the NHL right away. The brothers had three straight seasons with steady improvements under 40-points, before both twins eclipsed that mark prior to the 2004-05 lockout.

Nicklas Backstrom (2006‑07)

SHL: 45 GP, 12-28-40 (0.89 points-per-game), 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 82 GP, 14-55-69 (0.84 points-per-game), 20 years old

While Forsberg is the closest comparison in terms of points-per-game in the SHL, perhaps Backstrom is a more modern example of what Pettersson could become as an NHL rookie.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals
Apr 21, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first period in game five of the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena.
Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Backstrom followed the same trajectory that Pettersson seems to be on. After posting nearly a point-per-game as a 19-year-old, Backstrom joined the Capitals the following season, playing all 82 games. He cemented his place in the NHL immediately with 14 goals and 69 points.

The main difference in the way Backstrom plays versus the way Pettersson plays is that Backstrom remains more of a playmaker. While both could be point-per-game NHL players, Pettersson projects as a better goal scorer.

Markus Naslund (1991-93)

SHL: 39 GP, 22-17-39 (1.0 points-per-game), 18 & 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 71 GP, 4-7-11, (0.15 points-per-game), 20 years old

The fascinating aspect of Naslund’s teenage career in the SHL, is that he registered identical back-to-back seasons.

In both 1991-92 and 1992-93, Naslund posted 22 goals and 39 points in 39 games played. Some scouts might have looked at that and started to question whether Naslund could improve. Ironically enough, there have been some similar questions thrown Jonathan Dahlen’s way after he posted near identical numbers this season in Timra.

Markus Naslund #19
Despite a slow start to his career, Markus Naslund ended up as one of the NHL’s most prolific goal scorers in the early 2000’s (Getty Archives)

While sometimes that is a cause for concern, things seemed to work out pretty well for Naslund. The former Canucks captain went on to score nearly 400 goals throughout his NHL career.

However, Naslund didn’t pull a Peter Forsberg and rocket into rookie of the year conversations. His first year in Pittsburgh was as quiet as soft winds blowing over a pond in Ornskoldsvik. Naslund had all but four goals and 11 points in 71 games. He bounced between the NHL and IHL before breaking out in 1995-96. During the trade deadline of his breakout year, he was traded to the Canucks for Alex Stojanov. The rest is history.

Thomas Gradin (1975‑76)

SHL: 34 GP, 16-23-39 (1.1 points-per-game), 19 years old

NHL Rookie Season: 76 GP, 20-31-51, (0.67 points-per-game), 22 years old

It’s fitting that the man who pushed the Canucks to draft both the Sedin twins and Pettersson ends up on this list. Having been there and done that, doesn’t this seem like a man who knows what he’s talking about?

One of the interesting things to note about Gradin is that his points-per-game total dipped after his 19-year-old season. Another great Swede on this list, Forsberg, also endured the same results.

Thomas Gradin’s stats via Hockey Reference

When we think of how great Pettersson can be, it’s important to note that there could be a year early on in his development where he doesn’t perform up to par. It’s hard to preach patience to fans when the team sucks, but it feels like there is extra pressure on Pettersson considering his place in the organization. He is by far the Canucks top prospect, which means he will be under a microscope from the day he arrives here.

Not everyone jumps into this league and produces right away. The Sedins and Naslund are great examples of that. Even players who produced right away in the NHL, like Gradin and Forsberg, had seasons where they couldn’t cap their output as a teenager.

Tomas Sandstrom (1982‑83)

SHL: 36 GP, 22-14-36 (1.0 points-per-game), 18 years old

NHL rookie season: 74 GP, 29-30-59, (0.8 points-per-game), 20 years old

The Finnish-born Sandstrom went on to have the best rookie season by non-Swedish player in the SHL. One of the most impressive feats about Sandstrom’s feat is that he did it at 18 years old. He remains tied with Naslund for the best point-per-game totals by a player that age. Daniel, as mentioned, holds the lead in overall points at the same age.

Tomas Sandstrom’s stats via Hockey Reference.

Sandstrom went on to have an NHL career that spanned 15 seasons. He also made it to the Stanley Cup Finals with two different teams, winning the Cup with Detroit late in his career.

Although he’s someone who played a completely different game than Pettersson does, it’s another example that highlights that stellar rookies in the SHL usually go on to have great success. Whether the examples are dated or recent, a whole barrage of talented 19-year-olds have gone on to carve out successful NHL careers.

Is there a player on here who you think best exemplifies Pettersson’s trajectory? Let us know in the comments.