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Is It Time to Push the Panic Button on Elias Pettersson?

The Canucks superstar centre has gotten off to another slow start this season with points in just two of his five games. Is it time to start to worry?

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

When the Vancouver Canucks drafted Elias Pettersson with the fifth overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, they completely altered the trajectory of the franchise and sped up their rebuilding process. Pettersson has enjoyed one of the most successful debuts to a career of any Canuck ever and looks primed to be a leader of this team for years to come.

The value of his new contract puts Pettersson alongside other elite centres such as Mathew Barzal and Brayden Point. After being bombarded with a constant stream of updates on the contract talks, everyone was excited for Pettersson to hit the ice and get back to helping the Canucks win. However, the first five games of this season have been a bit of a mixed bag for the Swedish superstar and for some his new contract means that he has a short leash, resulting in an outcry from a section of fans and media.

Pettersson has three points through those five games but he has just one point at 5-on-5. Not only has he lacked consistency, but his analytical profile has also not been its usual scintillating self.

After a slow start last year that went hand-in-hand with the team’s early struggles out of the gate, fans are scared that a repeat may be occurring.

Grading Pettersson’s Performance Thus Far

Before we go any further it must be stated that it’s only been five games and the sample size isn’t large enough to pull any real conclusions from, especially with some of the analytics and advanced stats.

Nonetheless, Pettersson has been significantly less dangerous while on the ice at 5-on-5 this season compared to last. Not only has he failed to score, he isn’t creating nearly the same amount of scoring chances for himself as he has in years past.

As per NaturalStatTrick, he is only averaging 4.11 shots per sixty minutes, 0.36 individual expected goals per sixty minutes, and 2.47 individual scoring chances per sixty minutes at 5-on-5. All those numbers are career lows.

He’s gotten to play with a variety of wingers throughout this young season including as the middleman for the “Lotto Line” which has been among the league’s best in previous years. However, so far Pettersson has struggled to create offense not only for himself but also for his linemates, no matter what the combination is and despite the Canucks playing some weak competition.

NHL: Preseason-Edmonton Oilers at Vancouver Canucks Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of driving play towards the opponent’s end of the rink, Pettersson hasn’t done much better. He is sporting a 47.5 xG% at 5-on-5 and the Canucks are only getting 41.4% of the high danger scoring chances while he’s on the ice. This is the first time since his rookie season that any of those numbers are below 50%.

For as much as fans must be frustrated, know that Pettersson isn’t taking his struggles lightly.

“He demands a lot of himself and is a bit of a perfectionist in how he approaches the game,” said Thomas Drance of The Athletic on the Donnie and Dhali Show, “so if he’s playing poorly enough that fans are wondering ‘when’s this going to come?’, know that on the ice he’s seeing all the opportunities that he’s missing.”

So if we’ve determined that Pettersson isn’t playing up to his usual standard, what are some elements that might help him return to being the dominant two-way force that sits comfortably among the league’s elite?

The Boeser Factor

Ever since coach Travis Green put Brock Boeser and Pettersson together for the first time, the duo have been dynamite together. They have a natural chemistry that has been evident from day one and the two have connected for many highlight-reel goals.

The numbers support the eye-test as the Canucks have scored 56.7% of the goals while the two are on the ice together at 5-on-5 between 2018-19 and 2020-21. Without Boeser, that same number drops to 42.04% for Pettersson, a drastic difference that shows how well they complement each other.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Calgary Flames
Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson on the bench together.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Boeser missed time with an injury that he sustained before the season started and just returned for the recent game against the Buffalo Sabres. Even since he’s been back, Boeser has yet to look 100% though he did score on the powerplay on a goal that Pettersson recorded an assist on against Chicago.

As Boeser works back from injury and gets back to playing with Pettersson, the two can reignite some of that special connection that they have and get back to toying with defences. This will help Pettersson control play more at 5-on-5 and start putting up more points.

Finding His Rhythm

The biggest thing that Pettersson needs to get back to being himself — and certain fans aren’t going to like to hear this — is time. While it’s true that the Canucks can’t afford to underperform at the start of the season and then attempt a miraculous run to get into a playoff spot, Pettersson has had a rough go over the last year.

Last season he started the season with one of his worst stretches as an NHL player and then right as he was turning it on, he hurt his wrist and missed a significant amount of time. This offseason he didn’t take part in training camp or part of the preseason because of his contract hold out. It’s been a long time since Pettersson was in a normal rhythm during a normal season.

Add in the fact that he’s been playing with a rotating cast of wingers, some of whom he’s never been on the same team as, and it makes sense that he might get off to a slower start. Besides, it’s not like he hasn’t been making a few plays every game that leaves everyone with their jaws on the floor, like this pass off the end boards that leads to a high-quality scoring chance for Alex Chiasson.

Look at the bright side of things. The Canucks are 2-2-1 while all their games have been on the road and their best players have been relatively quiet. Things could be a lot worse. Have people already forgotten about the Tyler Toffoli games last season? With a little bit of time, Pettersson will be back to breaking ankles and picking corners, leaving everyone to laugh at how worried they were after just five games.