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Pettersson working magic for Canucks, draws comparison to Datsyuk

Rookie forward's stunning start brings hope to rebuilding Vancouver

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- There is something magical about Elias Pettersson.

Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill could see it on video. Here was this rookie center for the Vancouver Canucks, 6-foot-2, 176 pounds, pulling rabbits out of hats at both ends of the ice with hands, edges and hockey sense.

Pettersson would steal the puck before opponents knew he was there. He'd win battles and play keep-away in tight areas; draw opponents to him and find open teammates; and create space for himself not with pure speed but with deception, changing his pace, making moves.

It reminded Blashill of someone he once coached: the Magic Man, Pavel Datsyuk.

Video: VAN@DET: Pettersson beats Howard over the glove

Never before had Blashill compared a player to Datsyuk, let alone one whose NHL career had barely begun. But before the Red Wings played the Canucks at Little Caesars Arena on Tuesday, Blashill warned his players Pettersson was a "skinnier version of Pavel right now."

"You can't sit still for a second," Blashill said. "You never know where that puck's going."

The puck went off the inside of the right post and into the net 13:39 into the first period Tuesday after Pettersson took a slap shot on the rush from the top of the left circle. He became the fifth player after the NHL's inaugural season in 1917-18 to score 10 goals in his first 10 games. But that wasn't the only trick he pulled.

Late in the first, he had the puck on the rush and the presence of mind to look at the overhead clock to see how many seconds he had to shoot. In the second, he went end to end and slipped the puck through three defenders to set up a chance. In overtime, he came within inches of the winner, hitting the crossbar.

The puck slipped off his stick in the shootout, and Vancouver lost 3-2. But he leads NHL rookies in scoring with 16 points, seven more than anyone else, even though he missed six games with a concussion. He has generated hope and excitement for the future of the Canucks mere months after the retirements of Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

"He's played 10 games in the League, and he's already one of our best players and huge for our organization," Canucks center Bo Horvat said.

Keep this in mind: Datsyuk joined the Red Wings at 23 in 2001-02; Pettersson turns 20 on Monday. Datsyuk was a sixth-round pick (No. 171) in the 1998 NHL Draft and played a supporting role on a Stanley Cup team as a rookie. Pettersson was the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and plays a leading role on a rebuilding team.

In his first 10 NHL games, Datsyuk had one assist. In his first season, he had 11 goals in 70 games. No one knew then that by the time he would go home to Russia in 2016, he would be one of the great two-way centers in the game.

That doesn't mean Pettersson will be better than Datsyuk was, necessarily. It means that he's ahead of where Datsyuk was at this age and dealing with higher expectations, and that comparisons go only so far.

Video: Taking a look at Petterson's early impact on Canucks

Horvat called him one of a kind. Pettersson said he didn't pattern himself after anyone, even though his first idol was Peter Forsberg and he liked watching Datsyuk and Nicklas Backstrom growing up.

"Right now," Pettersson said, "I just want to be my own player."

* * * * *

What leaps out about Pettersson is his combination of skill, intelligence and creativity, and his ability to play against older, bigger players. It comes from nature and nurture.

Pettersson is from Ange, a town of about 3,000 in central Sweden. With few people, there was lots of ice time even though there was one arena.

His dad, Torbjorn, had keys to the arena and drove the Zamboni as a youth team manager. His brother, Emil, almost five years older, would become a sixth-round pick (No. 155) of the Nashville Predators in the 2013 NHL Draft and is a center for Milwaukee of the American Hockey League.

When Elias was about 3, Emil put the goalie gear on him and used him for target practice.

As the boys grew up, Dad would pick them up from school four or five days a week and take them to the arena for a couple of hours of unstructured play.

"Just using your imagination," Elias said. "I don't remember doing certain drills. I was just skating, having fun. Growing up, that was the funnest thing I could do."

They'd go home for dinner, then come back if they had organized team practices.

"I was able to be on the ice more than maybe guys who played in a bigger city," Elias said.

Elias was short as well as skinny until a growth spurt before high school. Still, he played pickup games against his brother and his friends.

"He always had to play on our level to be able to play with us, to not play with his friends or kids his age," Emil said.

Elias played organized hockey above his age level too.

"It's good for me to be little or to be skinny, to be lightweight, because I have to develop a way to take hits, win battles with smartness and not win battles with strength," Elias said. "I think it's helped me in a good way to not be the biggest guy on the ice."

One summer day when Elias was in his early teens, he was messing around with his friends on a soccer field next to the arena when a men's team showed up for practice short on players. Elias filled in for a scrimmage. Though he chose hockey over soccer, he outsmarted the older, bigger players on the pitch as if it were ice.

"You can't train all this stuff," Emil said. "He has something special. But he has developed it from a young age just playing hockey for fun. I think at that age, it helped to have an older brother who played too. But right now …"

Emil laughed.

"I don't think I have a lot of stuff to teach him," Emil said.

Emil left Vaxjo of the Swedish Hockey League for Milwaukee last season, and Elias joined Vaxjo, stepping up from the second tier of pro hockey in Sweden. Some of the players wondered how Elias would fare. Emil told them he wouldn't be surprised if Elias put up a lot of points.

Never did Emil think, though, that Elias would lead the league in scoring in the regular season with 56 points (24 goals, 32 assists) in 42 games and the playoffs with 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) in 13 games. Vaxjo won the championship. Elias was named rookie of the year and most valuable player of the playoffs.

"That's exactly the same now," Emil said. "I was never worried that he was not going to play in the NHL or not make an impact on the ice, but to have [16 points in 10 games]? You can't know that he was going to do that."

* * * * *

Canucks coach Travis Green was confident Elias could play in the NHL. His concern was if he could play center, because he had shifted to left wing in the SHL and hadn't been in the middle for a year.

Green called him in the offseason and told him he wanted him to practice at center.

"He's a smart kid," Green said. "He'd already figured out in his own mind, I believe, that he'll get the puck more at center. [In Europe on] the bigger ice, you can play the wing and still get the puck a lot. Over here, the ice is narrower. You don't get the room on the walls."

Pettersson quickly alleviated any concern. The Canucks' problem now is keeping hype under control and expectations realistic. But it's a good problem to have, and it isn't a problem with Pettersson himself.

Video: COL@VAN: Pettersson backhands puck past Grubauer

Referring to his five-point performance in a 7-6 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche at Rogers Arena on Friday, a reporter started to ask, "What do you think the win the other night and the way you did it …"

Pettersson cut him off.

"We did it," he said.

Asked about becoming the fifth player in a century to score 10 goals in his first 10 games, Pettersson said he was happy about it but pointed out the Canucks hadn't defeated the Red Wings that night. It was no time for celebration.

"There's some guys that you can tell are wired for success, and I feel like he is," Green said. "He talks like he is, and he's been very humble still and not getting too far ahead of himself."

Emil said Elias has matured a lot the past couple of years.

"It's impressive that he's had so much success the last two, three seasons, and he's still the same person," Emil said. "He hasn't changed a bit toward family, friends."

Toward hockey, either. He's the same kid having fun on the ice, using his imagination.

"The game is so fast out there," Elias said. "You have to be quick. I always try to be one step ahead of the play and always make plays. That's what hockey's all about. Sometimes it works, and when it doesn't work, I try to figure out another way.

"Nobody's perfect. Of course, I'm better at some things than others, but I will work on everything. If my shot would be perfect, I would score on every shot. The more you practice, the better you'll be in games. That's always been my focus.

"I didn't know what to expect [in the NHL]. I'm just living my dream right now."

*** looks at how Elias Pettersson keeps finding new ways to wow:

Pettersson slutar aldrig förvåna: "Saknar ord"


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