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Pettersson, Hughes bright spots in a dark Canucks season

‘I think everyone should be optimistic, we have a lot of good pieces here’
Vancouver Canucks centre Elias Pettersson listens during the NHL hockey team’s end of season news conference, in Vancouver, on Saturday, April 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes were two very good players on a not-very-good Vancouver Canucks team this NHL season.

By combining for 46 goals and 180 points, Pettersson and Hughes showed what Vancouver’s potential could be if management surrounds them with more talented players.

But by finishing the season 11th in the Western Conference with a 38-37-7 record for 83 points and missing the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons, the Canucks showed the reality of their current situation.

Despite the darkness of the concluded season, Pettersson and Hughes, the two brightest spots on the Vancouver roster, remain confident the Canucks are heading in the right direction under new coach Rick Tocchet.

“It’s definitely a little disappointing right now, but looking forward I think we should be excited going into next year,” Hughes, a 23-year-old defenceman born in Orlando, Fla., said Saturday as the players cleaned out their lockers and held exit meetings with the coaching staff.

“I think everyone should be optimistic. We have a lot of good pieces here and things are moving in the right direction. It’s been a difficult year for sure (but) we’ll be a better team and a better group next year with what we’ve dealt with this year.”

Pettersson, the 24-year-old silky centre from Sundsvall, Sweden, had career highs with 39 goals and 63 assists for 102 points. He joins Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Markus Naslund, Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin as the only Canucks to score 100 points in a season.

While his stats were eye-catching, Pettersson is most happy with how other parts of his game have improved. As he’s grown bigger and stronger, his defensive game has got better.

“I’m super happy scoring a lot of points, but also super happy the way I’ve been growing as a player, getting better two ways,” he said.

“I’m always trying to understand and look what I can do better, trying to get better every day.”

Hughes broke his own record for points in a season by a Canuck defenceman with 69 assists and seven goals in 78 games. He’s followed a steady learning curve in his four years in the league.

“As a young defenceman, it’s really hard because you are trying to make plays, you have the puck on your stick a lot,” Hughes said. “You’re playing against really good lines.

“My second year I struggled defensively. A lot of guys go through that. As you continue to play in the league, you get more games, the more comfortable you feel. This year I took another step.”

When Tocchet took over from the fired Bruce Boudreau on Jan. 22, he introduced a more structured system. The Canucks responded by going 20-12-4 down the stretch.

The team was also helped by the return of goaltender Thatcher Demko from injury.

The Canucks had a similar bounce last year when Boudreau replaced head coach Travis Green. With Boudreau, Vancouver went 32-15-10 to finish just five points out of the playoffs.

Pettersson believes Vancouver is building from a more solid foundation heading into next season.

“There was a lot of new faces this year,” he said. “Now we have played a season, we’ve got to know everyone a little more. I like the direction we are headed. I’m excited for next year.”

Pettersson, who is entering the final year of a three-year deal that will pay him over US$10 million next season, faces a decision. The Canucks can sign him to a contract extension this summer, or he could enter next season as a pending restricted free agent.

“I haven’t thought too much about it to be honest,” Pettersson said. “I like to live in the moment and just take it day by day.

“I like it here.”

The Canucks face some other personnel decisions.

Centre J.T. Miller signed a seven-year, US$56-million contract extension that begins next season. Miller had 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists) this season, down from his 99-point campaign in 2021-22. There is speculation the Canucks would be open to moving him to clear some salary cap room.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the seven-year deal,” said Miller. “It’s not a big worry for me.”

Brock Boeser has been the subject of trade rumours all year. The 26-year-old forward had 18 goals and 37 assists but seemed to disappear some nights.

“To be completely honest with you I don’t want to be traded,” said Boeser, who signed a three-year deal worth US$6.65 million a season last summer.

“It was a tough year. I think it’s kind of a blessing in disguise that I didn’t get traded. I really thought I started finding my game after the trade deadline. I think Tocchet has been great, the whole coaching staff has been great.”

Pettersson and Hughes are blocks the Canucks can build on moving forward. Both showed their character in the final third of the season when they continued to produce even when the team’s playoff hopes had disappeared.

“We’re competitive guys,” said Hughes. “We want to try to be as good as we can. The last 20 games, it’s not easy to be playing when you’re not in the race.

“My motivation was trying to push myself and be as good as I can as a player. This summer I have a lot of ideas in my head on things I want to get better at. Hopefully that will continue to get me to be a better player next year.”

—Jim Morris, The Canadian Press

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