When Elias Pettersson started his rookie season in the Swedish Hockey League last September, he wasn't expecting much. He knew he had a lot of talent and potential, but also knew he was still 18 and would struggle physically at just 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds playing in the men's league.
After getting off to a self-described slow start with two goals and seven assists in 11 games and one as a healthy scratch, he began wondering just how challenging this season would be for him. Then in a game against Frolunda in late October, everything changed.
Scoring three goals and adding two assists - including some of the highlight reel variety - in that game, Pettersson's confidence exploded and he knew he could be a player that put up a lot of points. And that's exactly what he did finishing the season with 24 goals and 32 assists for 56 points in 44 regular season games, plus another 10 goals and nine assists in 13 playoffs games as his Vaxjo Lakers went on to win the SHL championship. He also racked up a plethora of post-season awards in the process - Rookie of the Year, Player of the Year, Regular Season MVP, Playoff MVP, Best Plus/Minus, Most Points and Most Goals by a Junior. (He was just three goals shy of the league lead in goals.)
If that isn't impressive enough, it's worth noting he missed a month in the SHL while preparing for and playing with the Swedish national junior team at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he notched five goals and two assists in seven games enroute to a silver medal.
"I didn't know how good I could be in the SHL. I knew I could do well, but to do this well…" Pettersson said with a smile creeping across his face. "I couldn't even dream of it. But, I've been working hard to become the player I am today and I'm very happy with the season."
While at a team gathering to celebrate Vaxjo's SHL Championship, he got a text message from an assistant coach with the men's national team asking if he had anything left in the tank. They wanted the 19-year-old to join the team at the 2018 IIHF World Championship in Copenhagen, Denmark.
"It was not hard to recharge and get focused on hockey again," he said. "I was really excited. It's always fun to play for your national team and I thought it would be a good challenge for me to play against bigger players, stronger and faster, and to try this level of hockey. I think it's very positive for me to get the chance to play in the world championship with Sweden."
Rikard Gronborg, head coach of the Swedish national team agrees.
"Obviously, he's a tremendous hockey player. He's still young and learning his trade, right now, but he took some huge steps this year and has continued that here. He has been great for us," he explained. "Playing at this level is a real challenge for him physically, but he's still pretty young - his strength will come - and playing at a high level and getting that experience to really see where he needs to be is good for him. I think he's taken on that challenge and done real well with it so far."
Although known for his scoring, especially one heck of a onetimer from the circle on the power play, something he worked hard to perfect last summer, Pettersson said he considers himself more of a playmaker. Gronborg agrees.
"I don't think he's just a goal scorer. I see the vision he has on the ice and the passing skills he has and the awareness he has of where other players are at and I think that's separates him from just being a goalscorer," the coach explained. "I've also really appreciated the past couple weeks that I've worked with him that he works all over the ice. He does the back checking and all the dirty work as well and that really shows me a lot of his character. He has several layers to his game and, as a coach, that's something we like to see."
In five games at the world championship, Pettersson earned a goal and two assists before breaking his thumb in a preliminary round game against Switzerland. It will require surgery to repair and he is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, but it should not impact his summer training plans.
The fifth overall selection in last June's NHL Draft wants to focus on building strength, improving his agility in tight areas and continuing to work on his shot.
"Here, playing against NHL players, I am not strong enough and I lose the puck kind of easily and then I get frustrated," Pettersson explained. "I feel good that I'm able to play in this world championship and against NHL players and try my game at this level and see what I need to do and where I need to get better. I knew I had to bring my best game and make quick decisions and be smarter with the puck. I learned a lot in these games and it motivates me to train harder and become stronger and better."
As questions swirl about when he will make the jump to North America and try his hand at the NHL, Pettersson knows two things for sure.
"I want to play in the NHL as quick as possible, but I want to be ready to be a good player there," he said. "I don't want to just make it to the NHL and play in a couple games. I want to be a player that makes an impact and helps my team win every night. Is that this year? I don't know. We'll see."