Why Canucks star Elias Pettersson is struggling — and how he can get going

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This hasn’t been Elias Pettersson’s series. Yet.

We all know how remarkable Pettersson is when he’s on his game. And the level he’s usually hit and sustained has been so high over the past five years that his protracted struggles in the Vancouver Canucks’ first-round series against the Nashville Predators and down the stretch — Pettersson has scored just one goal in his last 18 games — stand out.

Through five playoff games against the Predators, Pettersson has two points, both of them secondary assists. He’s yet to be on the ice for a Canucks goal at five-on-five.

Naturally, Pettersson’s puzzling form has led to a fair bit of speculation about his health. Following Vancouver’s power-play-focused practice at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday, Pettersson was politely asked by an NHL.com reporter about how he’s feeling physically at this stage of the season.

“No, I feel awful,” Pettersson said, shutting down the line of inquiry outright. “I don’t know why I’m playing.”

It was a seemingly frustrated response from an exceptional player who is under a ton of pressure to perform. That pressure isn’t affected by whether or not Pettersson is 100 percent. Few players are at this time of year.

“I was probably a bit too emotionally fired up, and trying to do too much the first two games (of this series),” Pettersson reflected. “The atmosphere at Rogers Arena was amazing, and I got away from my game and tried to do too much instead of just playing my game. Live and learn.

“This is way different (than the bubble). You build off of the fans’ energy, when someone lays a hit, the fans are into it. The fans really do play a factor.”

We watched every shift that Pettersson has played in this series in an attempt to diagnose how and why he’s struggling. The Canucks are going to need more from Pettersson, there’s very little question about it, but where exactly is he falling short and how can he get going?

“I’ve been trying to be the best player I can be,” Pettersson said. “And it hasn’t gone my way.”

Why Pettersson is struggling as a playmaker

Pettersson’s never had the elite speed or size to beat opponents with his physical tools. Instead, he leans on hockey IQ and precise technical skills to set up chances.

This is a player with the offensive vision to identify dangerous plays before they materialize. From there, he usually has the nimble, creative stickhandling and laser-accurate passing to set up his teammates for glorious chances even when he’s tightly checked in high-traffic areas.

None of those attributes look right in the playoffs so far. Pettersson has made just three passes that directly led to a shot attempt at five-on-five. That’s an alarmingly low total, which tells us he isn’t driving play or setting up his linemates in quality scoring areas. Why?

For starters, his innate spatial and environmental awareness appears to be off. When Pettersson’s on top of his game, he has a special ability to seemingly always know where his teammates and opponents are. That means he can make quick-strike, no-look passes to spring his linemates into high-danger scoring areas before the opposition can react. Pettersson’s radar for detecting the precise location of his teammates and opponents is off and it’s leading to turnovers.

Here’s a sequence from Game 1. Pettersson has the puck on an offensive zone entry and has drawn the attention of two Predators. Because Pettersson drew an extra defender, Nils Höglander is streaking down the middle with an open lane. Pettersson can spring Höglander for a partial breakaway but his no-look backhand pass is way too far ahead. The Canucks regroup in the neutral zone and Pettersson has the puck with another chance to spring Höglander in the middle. He tries another spinning backhand pass and the defender intercepts it.

You’ll see another example in the play below. He spins and fires a pass to nobody, which ends the offensive-zone possession.

Pettersson’s defensive-zone turnover in Game 2, which led to Colton Sisson’s 3-0 goal was another example of his spatial and environmental recognition being just slightly off. He spun and made a pass to nobody, also permitting the Predators to gain the blue line in the process.

Some may see this and argue Pettersson should stop making blind, no-look passes. It’s easy to say that, but those types of plays, when executed properly, are instrumental to his playmaking. Pettersson has only set up two scoring chances for a linemate at five-on-five in this series and both came from no-look passes.

Pettersson has also struggled to thread the needle on passes into the slot. Here are two examples in which he had time and space high in the zone, held on for a long time and then couldn’t get his pass past the first defender.

“I know what I need to do,” Pettersson said Thursday. “The game is so fast out there, and they’re doing a great job, they’re tough to play against.”

How sloppy puck handling has restricted Pettersson to the perimeter

Once the Canucks get set up in the offensive zone, Pettersson hasn’t looked like a dynamic driver.

Early in the series, he spent a big chunk of time screening the goalie and in the net-front area. That’s not the worst idea because he typically has good hand-eye coordination and smooth hands for tight finishes around the net, but it’s left him less involved in creating plays with the puck on his stick.

When he does have the puck in the attacking zone, he relies on his dekes and puckhandling to create space and drive into the middle. Below is a positive example from Game 1. He makes a sweet drag move to avoid the shot blocker’s lane, setting himself up for a terrific chance from the slot.

The problem is that a lot of his dekes in this series aren’t working. In the play below, he loses control trying to beat Sissons one-on-one down low. He recovers but then his pass back to the point hits the official’s skate, resulting in a turnover.

Here’s a nearly identical play down low in which he tries to beat Filip Forsberg with a deke but gets denied. It ends with another attempted pass back to the point that’s picked off.

When he’s on top of his game, Pettersson is a master at making nifty dekes in high traffic. But in this series, he can’t consistently pull off those manoeuvres, which means he can’t create space and has been mostly limited to the perimeter.

“They always have a guy on me on the power play and they always play me hard,” Pettersson said. “I mean they play hard against everyone, and we don’t have much time. It’s up to me, it doesn’t matter what they do, I’ve got to come up with a way (to get it done).”

Pettersson’s uncharacteristically imprecise finishing

Even though Pettersson has struggled to make plays, he’s still found some terrific scoring chances. Normally, he’s clinical and surgical at burying those looks, but this is another area that needs fine-tuning.

Pettersson hit the net on 51 percent of his shot attempts during the regular season. In five playoff games, he’s hit the net on just 29 percent (seven shots on goal on 24 attempts). Small-sample qualifiers apply, and we’d expect Pettersson to start hitting the net more frequently just naturally going forward, but through five games a lot of his shots from prime scoring areas are getting blocked or missing the net.

The wide-open net he missed during a late-first-period power-play in Game 2 looms largest, but several other opportunities come to mind. Watch how long he takes to pick his spot on the shot below only to hit Jeremy Lauzon’s shinpad.

The next play is a little bit different. On this one, Nashville was overloaded on one side for a puck battle, so he has an abundance of time and space once the Canucks win puck possession. As Pettersson loads up to snipe the puck, he loses control. That gives Ryan McDonagh enough time to clog the shooting lane and so Pettersson has to resort to passing back to the point.

The linemate question

Both things are true: Pettersson’s not doing enough individually and his linemates are dragging him down.

Pettersson’s wingers aren’t making productive, creative plays in the offensive zone. You’d expect those struggles on the right wing, considering Ilya Mikheyev’s offensive struggles in the second half of this campaign, but the bigger surprise is Nils Höglander’s underwhelming performance.

Höglander isn’t creating enough havoc on the forecheck (although he found traction in Game 4 and was better in Game 5). Even when he gets offensive possession down low, he’s having a difficult time holding onto the puck and making productive plays. Defenders are checking him hard and he isn’t finding a way to generate offensive looks.

Here are a few examples in which Pettersson’s wingers make a bad play, killing the line’s offensive-zone possession.

When you combine Pettersson’s passing struggles with his linemates’ inability to make plays, you have a line that can’t string passes and connect plays. There’s no chemistry between them at the moment.

During the few shifts when the Lotto Line has played together, we’ve seen the impact that an elite winger would have in powering Pettersson’s rush offence. J.T. Miller’s ability to make skilled plays along the boards in transition has enabled him to spring Pettersson in the middle of the neutral zone for offensive zone entries with possession. Here are two examples — on the first play, Pettersson draws a penalty. On the second, he generates a quality look off the rush.

Mikheyev and Höglander, on the other hand, don’t have the high-end skill and awareness to hit Pettersson in stride for controlled entries. Just look at the play below. Mikheyev collects the puck along the wall and dumps it in, even though he has a chance to pass to Pettersson for a controlled entry.

It doesn’t make sense to play Miller and Pettersson together for prolonged stretches. The whole point of getting Pettersson going is to give the Canucks another reliable offensive line besides the Miller line. But if Pettersson continues looking stale, and if Höglander and Mikheyev aren’t sharp in Game 6, it may be worth shuffling the lines to give him say Conor Garland and Dakota Joshua on the flanks so he has more skill to play with.

“Obviously, we can generate more offence, ” Pettersson said of how his line is performing, with a focus on getting the forechecking game going. “I think they’ve been breaking the puck out a little bit too easy against us.”

Lacking pace and heaviness battling for the puck

Pettersson has another gear to hit with his pace and tenacity away from the puck.

He should be winning more 50-50 battles along the boards, and he’s getting knocked off the puck when absorbing contact down low at both ends of the rink. Pettersson also hasn’t forced turnovers as the second or third man on the forecheck with his usual consistency.

There haven’t been any egregious, clip-worthy moments in which you question his work ethic, because it doesn’t seem to be a work rate issue. Watching his shifts, however, you’re left wanting 10 percent more in many situations when he’s pressuring or battling for the puck.

NHL Edge data indicate that his skating speed is slightly down. Pettersson ranked in the 88th percentile for speed bursts above 20 miles per hour during his career-best 2022-23 regular season. In five playoff games, he ranks around league average. His regular season numbers were also slightly down compared to 2022-23.

The good news is that he looked significantly faster on the forecheck and more assertive physically in Game 5. The result? He forced Alexandre Carrier into a turnover in the first period that led to a sharp-angled chance for Mikheyev. Late, with two minutes remaining in the third period, he aggressively closed Lauzon on the forecheck. Miller recovered the puck as the second man in and snapped a pass to Brock Boeser who was robbed on his net-front chance.

Hopefully, that’s a sign of what’s to come.

“I’m just excited for Game 6,” Pettersson said.

(Photo: Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images)

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