Elias Pettersson entered the season with top odds to win the Calder Trophy, and with good reason. His performance in the Swedish League last season was something to behold. Across 68 games in all competitions with his club team, Pettersson scored 40 goals and 80 points. That included a 19-point playoff performance en route to an SHL championship, a season that came complete with post-season and regular season MVP honors, not to mention the rookie of the year nod. And a performance like that was met with considerable hype in Vancouver and across the NHL.
But did anyone really expect the 19-year-old to be this good, this soon?
Despite missing six games due to a concussion, Pettersson is tied for the team lead in goals and points in Vancouver, his 10 points in seven games gives him the league’s 15th-best points per game rate and he’s leading all rookies in scoring by three points despite having played at least three games fewer than the next-closest freshmen scorers. Pettersson has also managed to alleviate some of the concerns in the early going. His bodyslam-related injury aside — and that was no fault of Pettersson’s — it hasn’t taken him more than a half-dozen games to prove that adjusting to the smaller ice won’t be an issue, nor will his size stop him from producing against bigger, stronger competition. He’s proven elusive, savvy and skilled, looking every bit the offensive threat he was heralded to be.
There are, of course, going to be those who suggest we pump the brakes. After all, despite Pettersson ranking first in goals per 60 minutes (3.72) and fourth in points per 60 minutes (5.32) among the 494 players with at least 100 minutes skated at all strengths this season, he has only played seven games. A point here or there can skew the numbers significantly, especially when the sample is that small. When it comes to his goal total, too, it is indeed worth noting that he’s shooting at a wholly unsustainable 43.8 percent. But while that should give reason to take Pettersson’s performance with a grain of salt, that grain appears an awful lot smaller when considering how he’s found the scoresheet.
Take Monday night against the Minnesota Wild, for example. Pettersson’s first marker in a two-goal night came when he slipped into open space and blasted a one-timer into a mostly open net. The second came when Pettersson blocked a shot and was sprung on a breakaway by Brock Boeser. And if you flip through the highlights of his five other tallies, there’s only one — a deflection as he cut to the middle of the ice — that stands out as anything other than a pure goal-scorer’s goal. His other four tallies this season include a lethal top-shelf snipe in his debut, a one-timer where he slipped coverage, a power play one-timer and another seeing-eye shot in which he stepped into space to rip one on the man advantage.
That’s in no way to suggest he’s going to keep up his current scoring pace. Pettersson isn’t about to match Teemu Selanne’s rookie goal scoring record and post 76 goals in 76 games, nor is he going to put a 109-point assault on the scoresheet this season as his on-pace numbers would suggest. This isn’t the 1980s and Pettersson, for all his talent, isn’t Wayne Gretzky. Eventually, his shooting percentage is bound to normalize and his per-60-minute rates will follow suit.
Yet, even still, it’s beginning to feel as though 65 points, 70 points, maybe even 75 or 80 points, isn’t such a stretch. And maybe we should have seen that coming.
Ahead of the season, Corsica’s Emmanuel Perry released what are known as NHL points equivalencies or NHLe. Essentially, these translation factors can help project production for players entering the NHL by way of analyzing past performances of players who’ve come to the NHL from the same league. By no means is it a perfect science, but it can help as a predictor of future success. So, what did the NHLe numbers project for Pettersson? Given his performance in the Swedish League last season pegged the Canucks rookie as a 67-point player. At first, that may have appeared optimistic. Now, it almost seems low.
Regardless, if Pettersson were to reach those heights — and boy, does it ever feel like a mid-60s point total might be a cakewalk for him at this point — it would stand as one of the most remarkable rookie campaigns in Canucks history. The current rookie record in Vancouver is 60 points, achieved by Pavel Bure in 1991-92. And though that mark likely would have fallen last season if not for Brock Boeser seeing his season shortened due to injury at the tail end of the 2017-18 campaign, Bure’s Canucks record could now very well be Pettersson’s for the taking.
This isn’t about rookie records, however, and it’s not even about winning the Calder Trophy (though Pettersson looks like he’s threatening to run away with the hardware before injured Ottawa Senators freshman Brady Tkachuk has a say in matters). For the Canucks, this is about the future. And if what we’re seeing now is only a small taste of what Pettersson can offer, the future could be awfully bright.