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Bigger is better: Ultra-skilled Pettersson needs to pack on pounds to make NHL impact

Vancouver Canucks prospect Elias Pettersson has been tearing it up against men in Sweden, but the big boys are in North America. His route to the NHL runs through the gym.

(Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Hockey News’ 2018 Future Watch issue with a cover date of April 2, 2018. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)

Elias Pettersson is pondering his future. Barely 19 years old, he’s sublimely skilled but very slight. When asked if he has an ideal weight goal in mind, he plays cheeky with his response: “Is there a weight limit in the NHL?”

Not that anyone is aware of. But Winnipeg Jets star Dustin Byfuglien does outweigh him by 100 pounds. “Oh,” Pettersson said. “I’m never going to reach that.”

Not that he ever has to. Pettersson has built his young reputation on superb hockey sense and ludicrous offensive skill, which prompted the Vancouver Canucks to draft him fifth overall in 2017. Despite being a rookie in the SHL with the Vaxjo Lakers, he led league in scoring (56 points in 44 games) and got off to a good start in the playoffs (four points in five games). While many in the hockey world are rightly marvelling at the advanced play of 2018 draft prodigy Rasmus Dahlin in Sweden, it’s worth noting that Pettersson has put up numbers rarely seen from a teenager in the country’s top league.

But the NHL is another level entirely. Pettersson knows that, and he has everything he needs at his disposal to be able to hang with the big boys. Not only is Vaxjo a top-end team in Sweden, but the program is known for its facilities and off-ice training – all the better to help Pettersson pack on the right kind of mass to his slinky 6-foot- 2, 161-pound frame. “I always work on it,” he said. “I want to play in the NHL, but physically I’m not ready for it. I’m aware of that and I’m working on it every day. I want to get more power in my legs and be stronger all-around in my body.”

Pettersson first made a name for himself in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-best circuit. As a member of Timra, he put up nearly a point per game last season but couldn’t help the squad get promoted to the SHL. Instead, he joined Vaxjo, a franchise that has only been up in the top ranks since 2011-12 but has risen fast. The Lakers built a solid program and even won the SHL championship in 2015, but they rarely had star power in their lineup. That all changed with the arrival of Pettersson. “I really like it,” Pettersson said. “It’s a great organization, and when I met them in the summer I felt very positive. My brother (Emil, who was drafted by Nashville and now skates for Milwaukee in the AHL) played there as well, so that was big for me.”

Needless to say, the Canucks have been pleased with Pettersson’s progress. The idea of him playing against tougher competition in the SHL was appealing since it would challenge his defensive capabilities, and he has passed with flying colors. “Obviously, he has surpassed expectations,” said Judd Brackett, Vancouver’s director of amateur scouting. “We always believed the skill would translate to the SHL, just maybe not so quickly. We wanted to see him make the leap, and he has proven he can play against older, more skilled players.”

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Pettersson also made an impact on the international stage, helping Sweden take silver at the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo. Although the loss against Canada in the final was tough, the Swedes basically cruised through the tournament up to that point, with Pettersson and New York Rangers first-rounder Lias Andersson tying for the team lead in scoring with seven points in seven games. Having such weapons up front was a boon for Tre Kronor, and Pettersson’s skills were on full display. “He’s an amazing player,” said WJC teammate Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, a Washington Capitals prospect. “He’s a sniper and I’m glad we had him.”

Pettersson also brings a burning desire to win every time he hits the ice. There’s definitely a sense he can be his own worst critic, but that drive – as long as it doesn’t engulf him – can be a powerful motivator. Brackett sees the push in Pettersson and notes the kid is a good self-evaluator. That became clear right from the get-go and bore itself out when the Canucks chatted up Pettersson at the NHL draft combine last summer. “His interview was very good,” Brackett said. “You could tell he was focused and there was no false bravado, he gave genuine answers. He was an impressive young man that wants to get to the next level, and he knows how to get there.”

Naturally, this will be a big summer for Pettersson. He was snubbed by Sweden’s Olympic team, but that gave him a break as Vaxjo prepared for what the Lakers hope will be a long playoff run in the SHL. It seems a given that Pettersson will play for Tre Kronor at the World Championship. From there, he’ll have an off-season in which muscling up will be the top priority.

There are no guarantees in the NHL, but it sure looks like Pettersson will push for a roster spot in Vancouver next fall. As the Canucks go through a halting rebuild, fans are clamoring to see the next generation spring into action, and Pettersson is one of a handful of exciting prospects on the cusp. There’s also goaltender Thatcher Demko, who has been marinating in the AHL with Utica; defenseman Olli Juolevi, who has bounced back a bit since returning to Finland from OHL London; and, center Adam Gaudette, a Hobey Baker Award nominee at Northeastern University. With Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat already in the NHL, the future doesn’t look so foggy in B.C.

Pettersson is, of course, aware of the hype. Though many players claim they don’t look at social media, he admitted he’s not above the pleasures of Twitter and all the yearning Vancouver fans have toward him. “When I have nothing to do, I like to see what they’re thinking about me,” he said. “I’m excited that they are excited about me.”

And why shouldn’t they? Pettersson is going to be big in Vancouver. Not ‘Big Buff’ big, but you get the point.