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Let’s, for fun, time travel back to June 23, 2017 and the sports bar at Rogers Arena where Vancouver Canucks’ fans have assembled to watch the entry draft.
The mood of the faithful has already been soured by a lottery that dropped their NHL team from second overall to fifth — and subsequent events did little to improve their mood. Just before the Canucks’ pick, there’s an audible groan as the cameras train on general manager Jim Benning who’s talking on the phone.
Benning, as it turns out, has been discussing a trade with Vegas where the Golden Knights move from the six-hole to five and give the Canucks an extra pick. But Knights’ GM George McPhee calls off the deal just before the Canucks’ selection, leaving Benning to take the stage at the United Center in Chicago.
“With our first selection we select from Timra, Elias Pettersson (which he pronounces as Peterson),” Benning announces.
Back in Vancouver, there is no audible or visible reaction from the viewing party. Nothing to suggest the Canucks’ GM has made a franchise-altering pick. Nothing much of anything, really.
There is, however, some grumbling when the rail-thin Pettersson is presented with his Canucks’ jersey. Many of those fans believed the Canucks were zeroing in on Cody Glass, a size-and-skill centre who had posted 94 points with Portland in the WHL that season.
Glass, however, would go to Vegas, who wanted him all along, with the sixth pick.
Remember this when they’re hoisting Pettersson’s No. 40 into the rafters at The Rog.
Draft day, it goes without saying, is a complicated event for the faithful. To be sure there have been occasions in the franchise’s 50-year history when the skies parted and the hockey gods dropped Pavel Bure or the Sedin twins into the team’s lap. More often, it’s come to represent the organization’s unfortunate history; a litany of misses and misjudgments that have doomed the Canucks to mediocrity.
But the drafting of Pettersson is one of those moments that will be remembered by the faithful, the pick where the great cosmic roulette wheel, for once, landed on the Canucks’ number. Presuming he remains healthy and his developmental arc continues to trend upward, the 21-year-old has given every indication he’ll become the elite NHL centre around whom the Canucks can build a winning program.
We see it now, of course: the skating, the playmaking, the hockey sense coupled with the monomaniacal desire to be the best. But the art of drafting is seeing those qualities in an 18-year-old who isn’t fully formed, who’s still growing into his body, who’s still exploring his game. Almost three years ago the Canucks saw enough in Pettersson to invest the fifth-overall pick in the draft.
How they arrived there is a compelling story.
In the vernacular of the game, Pettersson was a late bloomer. His hometown — Sundsvall (population about 50,000) — is located halfway up Sweden’s east coast not far from the more celebrated hockey centre of Ornskoldsvik, home of the Sedins, Markus Naslund and Modo in the Swedish Elite League.
As a 15-year-old, Pettersson enrolled in the Timra program, just up the road from his hometown and played in their U-16 and U-18 program. In his second year, he was called up to the U-20 where he rattled off 13 points in six games playing on a line with former Canuck prospect Jonathan Dahlen.
But if anyone saw a future NHL star in Pettersson’s early years, they had the good sense to keep their opinion to themselves.
“ We had an eye on him and saw the raw talent,” said Naslund, who was the GM at Modo when Pettersson was at Timra. “But I don’t think many thought he would make the jump to Allsvenskan to the SHL (Swedish elite league) to the NHL so easily and excel at every level.”
Things began to change for Pettersson in the 2015-16 season. Now 18, the slender Swede split time between Timra’s U-20 team and the parent club in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second division. That summer, he also played for Sweden at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in Slovakia where he caught the eye of veteran Canucks’ scout Ron Delorme.
“Ronny loved him,” says Benning.
Pettersson was now on the Canucks’ radar. His draft year he went back to Timra where he recorded 41 points in 43 games playing on a line with Dahlen. He also made the Swedish team at the world junior in Montreal where Benning saw him. By then, the Canucks director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett and scout Inge Hammarstrom had been dispatched to watch Pettersson.
“We all really liked him,” said Benning.
But did they like him enough to invest the fifth overall pick in the draft?
Pettersson entered the draft as Central Scouting’s second-highest European skater behind Russian Klim Kostin. In the overall pool, the top-two prospects, centres Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick, were considered chalk but there was a wide divergence of opinion behind them.
As expected, Hischier and Patrick went one-two to New Jersey and Philadelphia, who’d moved up 11 spots in the lottery. Dallas then made things interesting when they grabbed Finnish defenceman Miro Heiskanen third overall leaving Colorado to take defenceman Cale Makar with the fourth pick.
The Canucks had hoped Makar would fall to them at five and they would have selected him over Pettersson. That raises a great what-if: Would have they taken Quinn Hughes in 2018 had they drafted Makar? And who would they have taken instead of Hughes? But the Avs made the point academic.
Benning also considered trades where the Canucks would move down for extra picks but he was fearful the Rangers, who were picking seventh, had designs on Pettersson.
In the end the GM stood pat and took The Alien which all seems pretty straight forward. This being the Canucks, however, you know it can never be that easy.
A narrative has since emerged that suggests the hockey department was divided on Pettersson. Brackett was in favour of taking the Swede. Benning was leaning toward Glass.
Benning rejects that version of events and while he isn’t exactly expansive on the subject, he said: “(Pettersson) was a unanimous decision.”
The relationship between Brackett and Benning has since been strained. While no one will speak to the matter on the record, Brackett believes he should have some degree of autonomy in running the scouting department. He’s turned down a contract extension from the Canucks. He was also aligned with former president Trevor Linden.
Brackett was not made available by the organization for this piece.
The backroom drama, while intriguing, is also inconsequential. Over the years Canucks’ fans have watched a steady stream of Brad Ferences, Josh Holdens, Libor Polaseks, Jason Herters — do we really have to go on? — climb up the stairs on draft day and stand with the resident GM as the organization’s first-round pick.
That player is supposed to represent hope. He’s supposed to represent the future. In the Canucks’ case he’s usually represented something else. But in the summer of 2017 they got the pick spectacularly right.
Now there is hope.
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