Canucks: Elias Pettersson picking up the pace after 100 games

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 06: Elias Pettersson #40 of the Vancouver Canucks scores on a shot in the first period while playing the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on November 06, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 06: Elias Pettersson #40 of the Vancouver Canucks scores on a shot in the first period while playing the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on November 06, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Vancouver Canucks phenom Elias Pettersson has 98 points in his first 100 NHL games. How has he been following up his Calder-winning rookie year and what could be next?

There was nothing overly special about Elias Pettersson’s goal in the Vancouver Canucks’ Tuesday night match against the Ottawa Senators — a simple net-front tap-in off a pass from Brock Boeser — except that it was the 40th goal of his NHL career, the same number that’s stitched on the back of his jersey every game, and it came in his milestone 100th game in the league.

Out of all the players who’ve started their career on the Canucks, only two have scored more goals in their first 100 games: Pavel Bure (64) and Pettersson’s own linemate, Boeser (47).

This goal was also 21-year-old Pettersson’s 98th point in the league, a number so tantalizingly and impressively close to the 100 points that would have put him at a point-per-game pace for his career thus far.

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There’s always a high level of expectation and a flurry of excitement around highly-drafted prospects, and Pettersson (fifth overall in 2017) was no exception when he got his start with the Canucks last October. But he still managed to surpass many of those expectations, shocking and aweing with 10 goals in his first 10 games right out of the gate.

He secured himself as an easy lock at the front of the Calder race and kept it up to win the rookie of the year award in June after registering 66 points in 71 games.

Over the course of his first season, Pettersson did more than just put up points; he quickly became a sensation in Vancouver, a spark for fan excitement after three years in a row of failing to make the playoffs.

He’s now got his own enormous poster on the outside of Rogers Arena alongside the other most recognizable stars, he’s amassed all kinds of nicknames from “Dekey Pete” to “the Alien,” and he’s even inspired a hilariously devoted following in the Church of Pettersson.

Throughout all the highs of Petey-mania so far, it’s clear that Petterson has been utterly embraced by a fanbase overjoyed to have a young superstar blast past all their expectations so quickly.

So if that’s the kind of success he’s had in his first 100 games, what could be next? It’s helpful to situate how his start in the league compares to some of his peers.

When the Edmonton Oilers’ young captain Connor McDavid reached 108 points in his 100th NHL game in February 2017, it ranked him fourth out of all active players for points after 100 games, behind only Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby (132), Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin (128), and Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin (114).

Since then, no other young NHL player has breached the 100-points-in-100-games bar, although previous Calder-winner Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders came even closer than Pettersson with 99 points.

Breaking down the points to look at pure goal-scoring is where Pettersson stands out. McDavid scored 26 goals in his first 100 games, and Barzal notched 24. In Pettersson’s 100th game, he scored his trademark 40th. Out of the three young centres, McDavid had the most ice time throughout his first stretch of games, with 20:12 TOI/GP, whereas Pettersson and Barzal clocked in a more similar 18:23 and 17:40 respectively.

McDavid was considered a generational talent before he ever set skate to NHL ice, and he’s now having an impressive year even by those lofty standards, sitting at the top of the league with an unbelievable 51 points in 30 games, tied in an almost eerily-close tandem with his linemate Leon Draisaitl as they lead the Oilers to their best starting record in years.

Barzal is perhaps a more even-handed comparison for Pettersson. After scoring 85 points in his rookie year to win the 2018 Calder, he slowed down with 62 points last year but earned praise for adapting to the defence-focused systems of new coach Barry Trotz, who turned the Islanders around in the span of a year from allowing the most goals in the league to the least.

Having improved his defensive game, this season Barzal seems to be back on a higher scoring pace more similar to his Calder-winning start, registering 24 points in 26 games so far.

Pettersson went into his second year in the league having already earned praise for his defensive play as a rookie, but he made it clear that it’s important to him to keep improving.

“I don’t know where it comes from, but I learned early that if you don’t have good defence, you don’t get to be in the offensive zone — and I like to be in the offensive zone,” he told reporters at the end of the Canucks’ successful October.

Throughout that first month, Pettersson’s impact on shot suppression and other defensive stats placed him in “elite” territory, and his ice time this year has continued to demonstrate that more defensive trust — and expectation — is being placed on him.

Last year, his deployment slanted heavily towards offensive play, with 70.5% of his zone starts taking place in the offensive zone. So far this year, it’s been much more evenly spread between 48.4% of his starts coming in the offensive zone and 51.6% in the defensive zone.

Even with this defensive focus, though, Pettersson is still scoring above a point-per-game, with 31 points in the Canucks’ first 28 games putting him on pace for 90 points this season.

With his “Lotto Line” teammates, Boeser and J.T. Miller, Pettersson has also more notably more involved in controlling play this year. The Canucks have registered nearly 60% of shots taken when he’s been on his ice in these first 28 games, compared to just over 50% during his rookie season.

When Pettersson didn’t match his incredible rookie start this year, scoring only three goals (but 11 points) in his first 10 games, some fans were vocal in questioning if this indicated a “sophomore slump.” But the fact that he continues to produce above a point-per-game pace while also playing a more well-rounded game overall makes any early criticism or skepticism seem unnecessary at best and foolish at worst.

Pettersson’s success and continued development as a centre are especially impressive considering he played on the wing in the SHL and his starting at centre last year was a leap of faith and good instinct from head coach Travis Green.

If he can contribute at this pace while developing his two-way play and growing as the team’s number one centre, it will be invaluable for the Canucks in the years to come. They’re a young team right now, and Pettersson is still a very young player. He’s on track to surpass his rookie year successes and blowing ahead of some of his most comparable players in the process.

It sure looks like Canucks fans have every reason to be incredibly optimistic about what his next 100 games will bring.