Sharks at Canucks Preview: The Karlsson Pettersson dynamic

1. Take off Xmas jammies. 2. Don the Teal. 3. Get that W.

The Vancouver Canucks (15-15-3, sixth Pacific) host the San Jose Sharks (11-18-6, seventh Pacific) at Roger’s Arena in the third installation of what has been a close-scoring series of games between the Pacific division foes this season. The Canucks beat the Sharks in November, then earlier this month by one-goal margins.

Both of those games were played at the Tank, with tonight’s match-up being the first to take place in Vancouver. For what it’s worth, the Canucks haven’t had the best success at home (6-9-1), while the Sharks have shaped up to be a road team (7-8-1) — granted, that overall distinction hasn’t been all too impressive.

Though Canada’s greatest team (shoutout to my beer league teammates from B.C.) is currently on a two-game burner, with recent wins over the Edmonton Oilers and Seattle Kraken, the Canucks started off the season slow. The team’s first win came via the eighth regular season game, catapulting themselves into trade talk territory. Usually that means elevated performances from the players in question, something the Sharks are no stranger to themselves, especially this season.

That aside, Thatcher Demko is still out with a persisting injury from earlier this month. Since then, Spencer Martin has taken the reins, going 10-5-1 this season. San Jose faced Martin last time, in the overtime loss. Can the Sharks expose the young, inexperienced goaltender this time?

Tanner Pearson and Tucker Poolman also remain out for the Canucks, who were injured earlier this season. The Sharks are looking happy and healthy after the holiday break, but Luke Kunin will miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury. Tomas Hertl will return after serving a two-game suspension.

The Sharks continue the tour of old friends, after playing against Jacob Middleton last week. Lane Pederson sits alongside Elias Pettersson on the Canucks’ third line. Pederson was acquired by Vancouver in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes in October.

Looking for a contract?

Whereas last season saw J.T. Miller in headlines, with possible trade destinations floated for a guy who arguably carried the Canucks through 2021-22, this season, he has gotten scoring help from Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson and freshman sensation Andrei Kuzmenko. But some of those players have been reportedly dog-eared for transaction.

Yes, even the first-year Kuzmenko isn’t off-limits. Admittedly, he isn’t technically a rookie at age 26, being brought over from SKA St. Petersburg on a one-year entry-level contract. He dominated the KHL last season with 53 points in 45 games, and the success has translated in the NHL.

So trading the likes of Kuzmenko, Horvat — not to mention the grab bag of Brock Boeser as a reclamation project, Luke Schenn as a dependable veteran defensive pick up a la Josh Manson, high-value targets like Conor Garland, Ethan Bear and others — makes for a scenario where the Canucks organization goes full-circle rebuild that started with Bruce Boudreau signing last season and the subsequent roster moves since then.

With two recent wins under their belt, the Sharks may be facing an opponent akin to a disturbed hornets’ nest. Captain Horvat has the hot hand with a team-leading 24 goals, while Kuzmenko sits with 29 points over 32 games.

Stopping Pettersson

One Canucks player who may in fact be off-limits is Pettersson. He’s on a hot streak, with seven points in the two wins against Edmonton and Seattle. Not to mention, he was credited with the overtime goal that put the game away against San Jose back on Dec. 7.

So what’s contributing to his success? It’s at least a two-fold answer, but both reasons have to do with how he’s deployed.

First off, Pettersson is centering Vancouver’s third line. So putting on the tinfoil hat: take away any situational stimulant from the game and Pettersson is facing off against the Nick Boninos, Nico Sturms and Matt Nietos of the world. His line mates are Kuzmenko — who’s been a success on his own — and ex-Shark Pederson. After Pederson was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes this off-season, he was then flipped to Vancouver, recently making his way into the line-up.

They don’t have a lot of time together as a line, but are having recent success, especially in the expected goals department (xG%). It makes sense; Pettersson and Kuzmenko are legitimate top-six forwards, but Boudreau is spreading the wealth around, benefiting Pettersson from playing more defensive-minded opposition, thus possessing the puck more often. It’s not a perfect mantra, but more puck possession equals more goals.

To add to this, Pettersson spends a lot of time and effort on the power play and is one of Vacouver’s most effective players on the top power play unit.

Adjusting for time spent at 5-on-4, we can exclude Joshua Dakota who has spent a rate of just 0:47 seconds and Garland with 1:26 of power play time in the last 10 games. That leaves Pettersson at the top of the team with an adjusted rate of 9.27 points in the past eight games. The next player with comparable time on ice at 5-on-4 is Horvat, who has an adjusted rate of 6.98 points. Quinn Hughes and Millers are the other skater-advantage mainstays, but haven’t been quite as effective.

Pettersson usually sets up on his offhand side, consistently finding the open shooter for the primary assist. The Sharks may need to mind the pass across and any open seams if they find themselves on the penalty kill.

Unleashing Karlsson, but playing the system

The Sharks won’t only have to keep the lid on Pettersson, but unleash their own Swedish terror in Erik Karlsson, who is likewise on quite the tear. The clear Norris candidate now sits on — is this mic on? — a nine-game point streak, with 14 points in that frame, four of those points coming in a dominate performance against the Minnesota Wild before the holiday.

If you missed it, Karlsson scored and created scoring every which way against the Wild, and with that being the first Sharks victory in what seems like forever, it’s clear that the team’s current success runs through the success of Karlsson.

That means keeping viable passing options open up and down the ice, having defenders like Matt Benning and Mario Ferraro soak up the harder defensive assignments so that Karlsson can focus on creating offense, and playing disciplined hockey so time on the penalty kill doesn’t sink the ship and Karlsson can play more at 5-on-4. Let him cook.

This concludes your Erik Karlsson update for today.

We can’t forget goaltender James Reimer, who has looked great since his return. His presence seems to steady the team and sets the baseline for a Sharks win. San Jose saw a lot of solid individual performances against Minnesota, but they also had the advantage of five interrupted minutes of 5-on-4. The team effort will have to be just as strong, if not better, if they want to start rolling a win streak.

Bold Prediction: Pettersson and Karlsson will duke it out, but one of Scott Harrington or Oskar Lindblom will be the unexpected goal-scorer and hero. They’ve both been playing well in their recent roles. The game will go into overtime, with Karlsson, Hertl and Timo Meier creating the moment for the game-winning goal.