Why Elias Pettersson is poised to produce again under Bruce Boudreau

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A fresh start under a new coach with a highly skilled passer on his wing sure feels like it could be the remedy for what ails the Canucks star. (Getty)
A fresh start under a new coach with a highly skilled passer on his wing sure feels like it could be the remedy for what ails the Canucks star. (Getty)

Twenty-five games into their season and the Canucks are an unmitigated disaster. Their .360 points percentage ranks 28th in the league and their sub-48 percent expected goal differential at 5-on-5 doesn’t inspire much hope that they’re bound to turn it around any time soon, either.

As a result, head coach Travis Green and long-time general manager Jim Benning were finally relieved of their duties on Sunday night. Enter Bruce Boudreau, whose first order of business will likely be trying to get his superstar centre back on track.

Elias Pettersson's struggles have been one of the most shocking storylines so far this season, as he’s yet to score a goal at 5-on-5 and has just one primary and two secondary assists at even-strength thus far. Pettersson has just 13 points in that time despite a career-high shot rate on a per game basis, slightly besting the last two seasons with 2.42 shots per contest.

Pettersson’s most notable strength over his first few seasons has been his wicked shot as he’d converted on 17 percent of his 5-on-5 shots in his career coming into this season, ranking third in the NHL among players who’d played over 2000 minutes and within a percentage point of the league’s best sniper in that time: Leon Draisaitl. The result was 37 goals off of 25 expected goals, cementing himself as one of the league’s very best finishing talents before hitting a wall this season and scoring zero goals on 27 shots and over three expected goals.

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One of the more surprising things about Pettersson’s goal drought is that even his expected shooting percentage, based on unblocked shot attempt quality, is currently higher than it’s ever been over his previous three seasons. This tells me that this is likely an issue stemming from last season’s wrist injury sustained in March, which prevented him from even shooting pucks until the middle of July. It’s easy to imagine some early rust turning into a frustrating start and melting into an extended drought while the rest of the organization falls apart around you.

That’s not to say that nothing’s changed, though, as on a per minute basis his shots on net, shot attempt and expected goal rates are down across the board, if only slightly. This implies that regardless of whether or not Boudreau is able to get his star more looks, Pettersson is due to start scoring some goals, assuming he can get his timing back. The chances are there and so is the long history of scoring on a high rate of his chances, they just need to find a way to get him even more looks in the right spots. Once he gets that first one to go, the confidence should rebound and, theoretically, his finishing touch should, too.

The Boudreau era is off to a hot start after shutting out the LA Kings in their first game under the new head coach while handily winning the territorial battle at 5-on-5, earning over 60 percent of the expected goal share. They also scored two goals at 5-on-5, with Pettersson picking up just his third point of the season at evens on the first one of the night.

Even more encouraging in terms of Pettersson’s projection going forward are his new linemates and their performance. After playing less than 20 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Conor Garland and Vasily Podkolzin prior to Monday night’s game, Pettersson played between the two virtually all night. Garland leads the team in 5-on-5 points by a wide margin (16) and in goals (6) while Podkolzin sits in a tie for second on the team in goals at even-strength, with five to his name. I find the potential combination of Pettersson and Garland especially intriguing, as Garland has continually proven himself capable of elevating his teammates even on a terrible Arizona Coyotes team.

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With Arizona, Garland was never afforded the opportunity to play with an elite talent like Pettersson and their skills seem like they should mesh well together on an intuitive level. Garland is an intense, gritty player despite his small stature, but his best talent is his playmaking ability. It’s not difficult to see how Boudreau quickly came to the idea of pairing these two up. Garland created chances for his teammates off of high-danger chances at an elite rate last year despite playing for a Coyotes team that otherwise did not create much offence.

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Garland showed off his talents in that area in the first period Monday night, turning a neutral zone faceoff into a grade-A one-timer chance for Pettersson in the slot in no time. Unfortunately, Pettersson obviously isn’t exactly feeling his best self at this current moment, and he buried it right into goaltender Cal Petersen’s chest.

The best part about that sequence is that it wasn’t even the first time in the game Garland had put Drew Doughty in the spin-cycle in that exact corner before setting up a high danger chance for a teammate, with the first one going to Podkolzin.

It wouldn’t be the last, either. If you scroll back up to the GIF of Garland’s goal you’ll see Doughty kind of aimlessly wandering. Just to wrap things up nicely, Doughty and Garland were both on the ice for Juho Lammikko’s 5-on-5 goal in the third as well. Doughty has had a much tougher time excelling on a bad team than Garland ever has. Ultimately, the trio of Garland-Pettersson-Podkolzin created six high-danger chances at 5-on-5 without giving any up despite being outshot by a couple. The new line has to feel good about their performance in game one and it should definitely mean a longer look for the unit.

It shouldn’t take Pettersson too long to convert on one of those chances being facilitated by his new linemate, as he’s flashed his outrageous shooting ability on the powerplay a couple of times this season already.

A fresh start under a new coach with a highly skilled passer for a new linemate sure seems like it should be just the remedy for EP40. If not, at least Boudreau is back in front of a camera.

(Data and Viz via evolving-hockey.com, hockeyviz.com, naturalstattrick.com and Corey Sznajder.)

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