The Church of Pettersson is in session, and each week, more people are joining the congregation.
It’s hard to keep 20-year-old Elias Pettersson‘s rookie season with the Vancouver Canucks in perspective, especially when the dazzling Swede is playing in an all-encompassing hockey market. In October, he was named the NHL’s rookie of the month, despite missing two weeks of action. By November, Wayne Gretzky joined a Vancouver radio station and declared he saw some of himself in Pettersson. That’s the level of hype we’re dealing with.
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby set the modern rookie standard during their smash co-debut in 2005. Ovechkin averaged 1.31 points per game that season, and Crosby was right behind him with 1.26. Both played 81 games. Some terrific rookies have appeared since then: Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Paul Stastny, Nicklas Backstrom, Artemi Panarin, Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Mathew Barzal. Through 31 games this season, Pettersson is averaging 1.13 points per game, which would rank third in that group, right behind Crosby and Ovechkin. Pettersson has a 12-point lead over Colin White for rookie scoring this season.
It’s not just Pettersson’s lethal shot that impresses. Videos of his no-look passes and slippery dekes have also made the rounds. That Pettersson fell to No. 5 overall in the 2017 NHL draft will surely be a regret (among the critiques for the late-bloomer: He was too skinny). We should note that Pettersson is benefiting from an insane shooting percentage (27 percent), though he already is more important to his team than the No. 2 pick of 2017, Nolan Patrick, and perhaps even No. 1 pick Nico Hischier. The Canucks center is top 10 in the league with 2.86 primary points per 60 minutes. Neither Hischier nor Patrick are above 1.20.
Pettersson plays on a team with a few elite pieces (really him, Brock Boeser and perhaps Bo Horvat) but not much depth. It’s why Pettersson comfortably sits as our No. 1 rookie at the season’s holiday break.
Here’s a look at who is behind him in the top-10 rookie rankings so far this season.
The Stars badly coveted this blueliner at the 2017 draft and reportedly made him untouchable in any trade talks, even with Erik Karlsson last summer. It has become clear why. The 19-year-old leads all rookies in ice time (23:07, nearly three more minutes than anyone else) while manning the top pairing with Esa Lindell. Heiskanen is a smooth skater putting up strong offensive numbers (seven goals, 10 assists, tied for fifth-most points among rookies). The Stars aren’t shying away from the buzz. This week, coach Jim Montgomery told reporters Heiskanen reminds him of Scott Niedermayer. Yes, the Hall of Famer.
The Sabres are offering a softer transition for Dahlin than the Stars have with Heiskanen. The 18-year-old’s ice time is managed (it was a hair above 18 minutes per game for the first 20 games, though he’s averaging 23-plus from Thanksgiving on), as he’s starting to look more comfortable. The offensive numbers (three goals, 16 assists) aren’t gaudy, but they’ll probably get better eventually. Dahlin is also a big part of the power play, with seven of his 19 points coming from man advantage.
After playing in 21 games last season, White is still technically a rookie, though it’s clear the experience of last season has helped as he mans the No. 1 center role while Matt Duchene is injured. White, a Boston College product and the No. 21 pick of the 2015 NHL draft, is one of the bright spots in Ottawa this season. He ranks second among rookies with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists), which puts him fifth on the Senators’ roster.
Keith Tkachuk‘s son has been everything the Senators could have asked for when they took him No. 4 overall. Not only has the 19-year-old made the NHL roster after forgoing his sophomore season at Boston University, he’s thriving, leading the team in expected goals-for percentage while ranking third on the team with 1.96 primary points per 60 minutes. This all is after missing nearly a month with a leg injury and a recent eight-game drought without any points.
The Hurricanes could use some extra scoring punch, but their top rookie, Svechnikov, is not the problem. The winger is third on the team in goals (nine) and fourth in points (17), all despite a limited role (he’s a top-six winger but is only the eighth-most-used forward at even strength). Svechnikov seems to be just heating up, with five points in his last five games.
The Blackhawks loaned Jokiharju to Finland for the world juniors championship, but don’t let that minimize his role on this Chicago team. The 19-year-old defenseman, on a top pairing with Duncan Keith, plays in all situations and has 11 assists in 32 games. His WJC stint is all about building his confidence for the future, with the Blackhawks admitting perhaps this isn’t their year.
Ullmark is technically a rookie, though it feels like he has been around the Sabres forever (the 25-year-old played in 20 games in 2015-16 but has skimmed the rookie eligibility rules for the past two seasons). Nonetheless, Buffalo’s primary backup is an important part of the team’s improved goaltending (and record) this season. In 12 starts, the Swede has gone 7-1-3 with a .915 save percentage and 2.94 goals-against average.
The 18-year-old was somewhat of a surprise pick at No. 3 of the most recent draft. But he played himself onto an opening night roster spot and forced the team to keep him around past the nine-game mark. He’s still getting acclimated to North American hockey (and the English language), yet has posted four goals and 13 assists in his first 34 games despite less than14 minutes of ice time per night.
Hill, 22, is a late addition to the list after being thrust into playing time thanks to an injury to Antti Raanta. In nine games (and seven starts) he has been a steady presence for the Yotes with a .926 save percentage, 1.97 GAA and one shutout. That includes the week of Dec. 3, when he was named the NHL’s second star after posting a a 3-0-0 record, 0.43 goals-against average and .983 save percentage in victories over Minnesota, Nashville and St. Louis.
Honorable mentions: Dennis Cholowski, D, Detroit Red Wings; Cal Petersen, G, Los Angeles Kings; Maxime Lajoie, D, Ottawa Senators; Anthony Cirelli, C, Tampa Bay Lightning; Mathieu Joseph, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning