VANCOUVER – It was slick, it was sick, it was effortless, and it wasn’t even Elias Pettersson.
Brandon Sutter, an older checking centre who is so not Pettersson, scored on a beautiful penalty shot Tuesday, fluidly pulling the puck to his backhand, and patiently gliding past the goalie before lifting the puck into the net to open the scoring for the Vancouver Canucks in their 4-2 pre-season win against the Edmonton Oilers.
It was a wonderful piece of National Hockey League tradecraft by a veteran shutdown guy who is highly respected by teammates, scorned by the analytics community and largely tolerated by everyone else. Sutter’s goal earned applause.
Had Pettersson pulled it off – and of course he would have – Rogers Arena would have shaken. Fans would be lining up in the morning for tattoos. But that’s the hockey world on the West Coast these days.
Almost everything Pettersson does thrills and amazes, which in itself is remarkable since so much is expected of last season’s Calder Trophy winner and one of the National Hockey League’s greatest young talents.
Tuesday’s game was probably Pettersson’s quietest day since the Canucks opened training camp Friday in Victoria, although his third-period rebound goal tied the game 2-2 and started Vancouver’s late surge. Sutter tapped in the game-winner on a terrific goal-side pass from Alex Edler.
We could speculate that Pettersson, expected to drive the team this season toward its first playoff appearance in five years, may be saving himself for more meaningful games or at least the arrival Wednesday of a friend and linemate Brock Boeser in his new armored car.
But that’s not Pettersson, who seems to seize every day as if it might be his last in hockey. He is 20 years old.
On the opening day of camp in Victoria, Pettersson not only survived coach Travis Green’s infamous conditioning skate, but dusted his group – unheard of for a second-year player.
The next day, the Swedish centre won the scrimmage in a shootout, using his reach to finesse the puck one-handed around the goalie like Peter Forsberg at the 1994 Olympics. Sweden made a stamp of that one. The City of Victoria may settle for a statue.
Then, Pettersson spent nearly an hour signing autographs for fans, turning no one away.
“The conditioning skate, he was on before me,” Canucks defenceman Troy Stecher said. “But we were all watching him from the stairs. He was leaps and bounds ahead of everyone. It’s insane.
“I was joking with some guys that he has perfected the Forsberg move better than Forsberg, he throws better dime passes than Tom Brady and he’s just insane to watch. He throws that flip pass to guys over their shoulder and it lands flat. It’s crazy. This guy is just a special talent.”
Pettersson reported to camp noticeably thicker, stronger and quicker – and maybe even an inch taller – than he was last season when he played at 176 pounds.
“I feel much better,” he said after the game. “Apart from conditioning, I feel much more balanced when I’m shooting. I feel like I can shoot a little harder and I feel like I have more control of everything. It feels good out there, even though I was a little tired today after training camp.”
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Canucks veterans such as Jay Beagle have a hard time believing how “professional” Pettersson is already.
“I definitely wasn’t ready when I was that young,” Beagle said.
“This summer was a big summer for him and it was nice to see that he came in bigger, stronger, faster and he continues to work to build his game into an even better player. That’s an incredible quality. It’s awesome to see when you have a young guy come in and he has not only have the talent and skill and the work ethic on the ice, which in itself is impressive, but also off the ice.”
“He’s just driven,” Green told reporters at camp. “There are certain players that you get to coach every once in a while that you don’t feel you have to worry about. How he thinks about the game, and not just the game but about winning, I don’t worry about him.”
If there is a concern, it’s that so much so soon is expected from Pettersson after he led the Canucks with 66 points in 71 games as a rookie. He is already Vancouver’s best player, and as we saw at training camp, quickly becoming a leader in other senses, too.
“I know the expectations are higher for me, but I’m the one who puts the highest expectations for myself,” Pettersson said. “I don’t think (about) what other people want to see from me. I try to play my best hockey every day.”
Hughes injury scare
There was one ripple of concern for Vancouver after Tuesday’s win: outstanding rookie Quinn Hughes left the game with 12 minutes remaining, two periods after losing a couple of teeth after getting high-sticked by Oiler Cameron Hebig. Hughes missed most of the first period, but played the entire second and looked excellent.
“Precautionary,” Green said. “I’m not sure where it’s at but from what I hear, it’s nothing major.”