Elias Pettersson might be the league's MVP, but that's beside the point

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How’s this for a stat: When Canucks super-rookie Elias Pettersson is on the ice this season, his team is plus-32.

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When he’s off the ice, it’s minus-46.

And that’s just about all you need to know about Pettersson’s MVP case this season. No one expected the Canucks to be any good, but here they are in the thick of the Pacific race halfway through the season. And they’d probably be a lot better off if he hadn’t missed eight-plus games due to injury, because the nights he missed saw the team go 3-5-0—  including the game in Montreal last week, in which he only played nine minutes before he was injured — and get outscored more than 2-to-1 (25-12).

And technically, Canucks opponents went 5-0-3 in those games because in all three of those wins, Vancouver failed to win in regulation.

Yes, of course one has to keep in mind that Pettersson’s shooting 28 percent and that isn’t sustainable. And one has to keep in mind that he’s already missed almost 10 percent of the full season’s schedule, so that might factor in as well.

And granted, the Canucks’ underlyings stink, especially since Pettersson’s 57.8 percent CF (????) suggests they won’t keep winning as they have: only enough to keep them juuuuuust on the outside looking in, but Anaheim is collapsing right now.

He’s a transformative talent, sure, but Pettersson is also the kind of player who’s the future of the NHL. He’s fast and a guy who accelerates to near-McDavid speeds in the blink of an eye, but can change speeds at will to keep opponents unbalanced. He’s big-but-not-too-big, though as many non-serious pundits have noted, not so much that he’s an NHL-ready weight yet. His skill is insane, off the charts of what you’d expect, and only 18 months out from his draft date, he’s No. 1 with a bullet in a redraft. Perhaps most important, he thinks the game in ways other guys don’t and, frankly, can’t.

In this week’s 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman also makes the case for Pettersson to enter the MVP conversation (not forcefully enough, I would argue), but later quotes Troy Stecher marvelling at a goal Pettersson made out of nothing because he just sees and understands the game on a different level.

The problem with Pettersson, in his critics’ minds, is that he is perhaps not respectful enough. Would he have eaten a ura nage in October had he not humiliated Mike Matheson by being too skilled? Would he not have avoided the Russian leg sweep by Jesperi Koktaniemi had he not been tangled up with the Habs rookie as they approached the end boards before overpowering him and skating away?

Don Cherry, in a moment of pure, distilled Don Cherryness, said that Pettersson’s most recent injury, which caused him to miss two and a half games so far, was on Pettersson, not the guy who hooked him and took him down a mile from the puck. Because Pettersson was asking for trouble or whatever nonsense Cherry was saying.

To me, a person who wasn’t in third grade at the outbreak of World War II, the moments leading up to that takedown looked an awful lot like the kind of hockey play — two guys jockeying for position near a loose puck — that Cherry would normally praise. But Pettersson, a Swede who simply doesn’t “play the right way” (that is, the way the game was played before the invention of cable internet), somehow went looking for trouble on that play and got it.

Todd Bertuzzi, who really ought to avoid talking about this kind of thing, also said the Canucks needed someone to Protect little Elias from the brainless thugs of the league like…. Matheson and Koktaniemi? It worked out great for McDavid last Sunday, right? Bertuzzi, just before he said he likes that players like Tom Wilson are still in the league, acknowledged Pettersson should get credit for “going to the dirty areas,” so that was a nice concession.

The lead-in to Friedman’s Pettersson nuggets was that his quality of play, and that of McDavid, might cause voters to rethink the way they vote on awards. Maybe a touch optimistic this year, given the state of the PHWA’s voting bloc, but probably headed in that direction.

The real thing people will have to rethink in the era of Pettersson and McDavid and Miro Heiskanen and Nathan MacKinnon and all the other U-22 talent now flooding the league and making it faster, more skilled, and more entertaining than it’s been in decades is: Everything.

The NHL as you knew it even from five years ago isn’t dead, but it’s dying and it’s doing so way more quickly than you think. How Pettersson slipped to No. 5 in the draft is unthinkable, and that draft was in June 2017, right? How much will change about the way we evaluate — and value — talent in the next five years?

Sidney Crosby, the best player of his generation, is the kind of guy that could have succeeded in any era because of his build and the way he plays the game. Joe Thornton and the Sedins are or were in much the same vein. They were ideally suited to the style in the early cap era and continued to evolve even as they slowed down because they were just that smart and the game was never so far past them that they became obsolete.

I often say that if McDavid were put in a time machine and sent back to the mid-’80s, he would score about 400 points in a season, but that’s only if some coked-up Patrick Division psycho didn’t two-hand him in the neck behind some 17-point game on a Tuesday night in February.

And because the officials — on the ice and at the league office — in this sport refuse to protect star players from these kinds of attacks, maybe the Cherrys and Bertuzzis of the world are right. If people, even the ones whose opinions smart people started ignoring a long time ago, are talking earnestly about how these guys still don’t get the sport, they’re probably right.

At least, they’re right about the sport as it was. But Pettersson, McDavid, and all the other high-skill, high-speed guys who follow in their footsteps are likely to remake the sport to suit their needs.

So you can either appreciate that and help them make your product more entertaining, or you can get trampled and left behind.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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