OTTAWA – If Elias Pettersson wanted to do it, he did it. He imposed his will on the Ottawa Senators Wednesday, netting his first career hat-trick on the same evening he was named a 2019 All-Star Game participant. And something felt different about the Canucks in general this night. They inspired a feeling reminiscent of the Sedins’ heyday or the Naslund-Morrison-Bertuzzi line’s peak dominance.
Hold up. To quote Canucks coach Travis Green directly after the game: “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.” Vancouver isn’t ready to become the league’s most exciting team or win a Presidents’ Trophy just yet. But, compared to some dark recent years while GM Jim Benning slowly rearranged pieces on the deck of his boat, trying to turn it around, this Canucks team feels ready to actually start accomplishing things.
And it obviously begins with the young man who seemingly accomplishes whatever he wants, exactly when he wants to. Pettersson said after the game he feels everything is possible if you believe in it, and he certainly played that way. The hat-trick wasn’t a collection of deflections and rebounds. For the first goal, he zipped a laser of a wrist shot through Senators goalie Marcus Hogberg, who couldn’t keep the puck out despite getting a piece of it. For the second: a beefy one-timer to the far-side top corner, catching Hogberg sliding the wrong way. Then, after Ottawa forced overtime with a furious third-period comeback to even the game 3-3: a perfectly placed wrister to finish off a 2-on-1 with Brock Boeser. Pettersson could’ve had an even bigger game, as he hit multiple posts. It appeared the pre-game announcement he’d made the Pacific Division All-Star-Game squad went right to his legs.
“I heard that before the game,” Pettersson said. “I was very happy with that. All the stars in the NHL are there, and the players you grow up watching…now I’m going to be at the All-Star Game playing with them.”
Pettersson now leads the rookie scoring race by 17 points over second-place Colin White of Ottawa. A concussion cost Pettersson six games, meaning he’ll finish with 76 if he plays every remaining contest. If he maintains his pace of 1.14 points per game, he’ll finish with 87 points. That would give Pettersson the top rookie total since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby’s scintillating debuts 13 years ago.
Canucks fans have every right to feel giddy about what they’re seeing from Pettersson. What he represents, though, isn’t just thrill of a star player, a guy who looks like he’ll contend for major individual hardware for years to come. He has also elevated this team’s ceiling. So has Boeser, who has shaken off some early-season groin woes and started to look like the dynamic sniper he was as a rookie last season.
“It’s become better everyday,” Pettersson said of his bond with Boeser. “We are not satisfied or happy where we are now – well, of course we’re happy where are now, but we both want to become better and build chemistry.”
Meanwhile, Bo Horvat is posting the best numbers of his young career, clearly poised to earn the team’s captaincy next season. Young defenseman Quinn Hughes is turning heads for Team USA at the world juniors. With the Canucks trading Anders Nilsson across the hallway to the Senators Wednesday, mega-prospect Thatcher Demko will get his NHL call-up to become Vancouver’s No. 2 goalie behind Jacob Markstrom. It’s only a matter of time before the crease belongs to Demko, whose size and confidence call to mind Connor Hellebuyck’s. Markstrom was once an elite netminding prospect, but we know who he is at this point. He turns 29 this month, owns a .908 career save percentage in the NHL and has one season left on his deal after this one. The succession plan is pretty clear. He’ll likely start more games than Demko for the rest of 2018-19, but it’s not inconceivable Demko gets the chance to steal the job should Markstrom slump.
The pieces of Vancouver’s rebuild are dropping into place. Heck, even ‘Shotgun’ Jake Virtanen has found his game under coach Green’s tutelage. That’s why it was time to ask Green this question (well, questions) after Wednesday’s win: has the franchise reached the point at which we should recalibrate expectations for it? Is mere progress no longer the goal? Is it time to realistically target the playoffs right now?
“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Green said. “We’re in this to win every game. We’ve said that from Day 1. We’ve also said there’s been a couple things we want to be this year: we want to be a faster team, we want to be harder to play against, and we want to play meaningful games down the stretch. So far, we’ve accomplished that, but in saying that, we’re also keeping an eye on our development and pushing our team in the right direction.”
Through Wednesday’s games, the Canucks sit 20-19-4 and one point back of the final Western Conference wildcard spot, though the team they chase, the Anaheim Ducks, has two games in hand. Vancouver’s rest-of-season schedule looks enticing, however. The Canucks have played 24 road games versus 19 home games, meaning they’ll play 56 percent of their remaining games at Rogers Arena. After the final two games of their current road trip, they enjoy a six-game homestand featuring only one opponent currently occupying a playoff spot: the slumping Buffalo Sabres. Vancouver gets Anaheim and Colorado three and two more times this year, respectively, and thus has a chance to control its destiny against fellow wildcard hopefuls.
This team is clearly far from perfect. It boasts the league’s 20th-ranked power play and penalty kill and generates the 27th-most shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. But the Canucks are showing us that having all-world talent can make them more threatening every single night. The playoffs would still be a bonus in 2018-19, but the idea no longer feels a million miles a way. It’s OK to start asking for more from this team.