Why starting in the AHL might be what's best for Elias Pettersson

Aug 8 2018, 6:09 pm

With training camp still more than a month away, and free agency all-but-wrapped up, there’s not much news coming out of the NHL right now.

Of course, that means there’s tons of speculation.

When it comes to the Vancouver Canucks, there’s a lot of uncertainty when it comes to what their opening night roster will look like. That’s especially true up front, where the signings of Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, and Tim Schaller mean the Canucks will have about 18 forwards battling for 13 spots.

One thing that seems to be a foregone conclusion in everyone’s minds is the Canucks’ top prospect Elias Pettersson making the team out of training camp.

It makes sense. The 19-year-old just put up the best U-20 season of all-time in the Swedish Hockey League, his 56 points in 44 games placing ahead of greats like Peter Forsberg and Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

But there are plenty of legitimate reasons for starting Pettersson in the AHL with the Utica Comets, at least short-term.

And yes, I know most of you already think I’m crazy for even floating out the idea of AHL time after the season Pettersson had last year.

But before you sharpen your pitchforks, hear me out.

They need him to be a centre

While most (if not all) have Pettersson penciled into their starting lineup, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on where he fits.

Does he start on the wing, or do you play him at centre right away?

Drafted as a centre, keep in mind Pettersson spent most of his record-breaking SHL season on the wing with the Vaxjo Lakers.

He played about a month at centre, struggling a bit physically at even strength.

Looking at the depth of the Canucks long-term, the organization would benefit most from Pettersson playing in the middle of the ice, especially since a majority of the NHL’s most impactful forwards play that position.

If Pettersson isn’t ready to play centre in the NHL right away, starting him in the AHL for a dozen games or so to adjust to the position – as well as the smaller ice surface and more physical nature of North American hockey – could be a good thing for his development.

As has been well documented, Pettersson is rail-thin, and the centre ice position is a physically-demanding one.

Expectations for Pettersson are sky high, and if he’s put in a spot he isn’t ready for, it could hurt his confidence. Consider what happened with both Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann after they were put into the NHL seemingly before they were ready.

The Canucks will not be a playoff team this season – something Jim Benning has even admitted – so there’s no need to rush him if he isn’t ready.

Linemates and a winning environment

Another question regarding Pettersson in the NHL: who do you play him with?

If you want him to play centre, and you assume Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser will be a pair once again, that doesn’t leave Pettersson with many options for offensively gifted linemates.

Loui Eriksson? Sam Gagner? Nikolay Goldobin? None of those names get me excited.

Meanwhile, the Comets are poised to be one of the top AHL teams next season, and if Pettersson were to start there, he would have a number of skilled linemates to play with.

He would be their first-line centre, likely playing between Reid Boucher and former Allsvenskan teammate Jonathan Dahlen, whom Pettersson already has developed some chemistry with.

Asset management

On top of the reasons above are the roster implications involved. The Canucks have a ton of players that will need to clear waivers if they don’t make the roster. Pettersson – of course – is not one of them.

‘Asset management’ is a term that gets used a lot in this market, and Pettersson starting in Utica would allow the Canucks to hang on to an extra asset (ie. Nikolay Goldobin, Brendan Leipsic) rather than having to find a trade or lose them for nothing on waivers.

Of course, if Pettersson blows the socks off of everyone at camp (ala Brock Boeser) and proves he has what it takes to be an impact centre right away, then sure, put him in the opening lineup.

But make him earn it.

If he needs a bit of an adjustment period, would playing a handful of games on a strong Comets team – while maintaining another asset – really be a bad thing?

PR disaster

Of course, there are downsides to Pettersson starting in the AHL as well. For one, it would a PR disaster for the Canucks, as most fans are expecting him in the opening night lineup, and everyone’s desperate for hope.

Not to mention, Pettersson is one of the leading candidates for the Calder Trophy, and playing fewer than 82 NHL games could hurt his chances. He’s also an incredible player on the power play, and looks to be the most obvious candidate to take over Henrik Sedin’s role on the top power play unit.

For those reasons, the most likely scenario is Pettersson playing the first Canucks game of the season.

But if Pettersson does start the season in Utica, don’t hit the panic button. Don’t sharpen your pitch forks. It may just be the best thing for him in the long run.

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