The 2012 NHL Draft was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It would be the first chance for a then 18-year old forward from Sundsvall, Sweden named Emil Pettersson to be selected by an NHL team. How were his nerves doing to mark the occasion?
“I didn’t really care actually,” smirked Emil Pettersson. “I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted.”
At the time Pettersson was predominantly competing at the Junior-18 level with Timrå IK. He had time with the Junior-20 squad competing in the J20 SuperElit league in Sweden but he was flying under the radar as a wiry framed youngster. The 2012 NHL Draft came and went. Pettersson went undrafted. His aspirations would be to make it to the NHL but he never truly had expectations of ever being drafted.
Jump ahead to the late stages of the 2013 NHL Draft held in Newark, New Jersey. The Nashville Predators chose Pettersson in the sixth round with the 155th overall selection. It would still take a further four-years before Pettersson would arrive to North America.
Pettersson’s path hasn’t been a conventional one for a player with NHL potential. If anything, his path lends itself more to sticking it out in Europe and having a decent career closer to home.
He spent a long time working his way up through both the Ånge IK and Timrå IK youth academy. It wasn’t until the 2012-13 season that he made his senior team debut for Timrå IK. He only played twice in the regular season and then twice during the Kvalserien SHL – which saw Timrå IK be relegated to the Allsvenskan.
Still, his progress and ability was noticeable and enough for Nashville to select him in the 2013 NHL Draft.
“That was cool,” said Pettersson of being drafted by the Nashville Predators. “I wasn’t really sure I was going to be drafted. I didn’t get picked my first year when I was available. I was still playing junior hockey back in Sweden. I could have been picked the year before so I didn’t really expect it. That was a great feeling.”
Following his selection by the Predators things started to pick up. Pettersson did play further in the J20 SuperElit league but the majority of his 2013-14 campaign was in the second flight of Swedish hockey playing for Timrå IK. He was able to score 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) in 44 games.
What came the next season would be the start of several location changes for Pettersson. Late in his 2014-15 season he was effectively loaned from Timrå IK to MODO Hockey of the SHL. He joined in time to help them fight off relegation from the top flight by scoring 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) in 4 post-season games. The following off-season he would accept a two-year contract with MODO Hockey where he played his first full-season up in the SHL and end the campaign with 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 52 games.
Unfortunately for MODO Hockey they were unable to avoid relegation that season. As it so happened, Pettersson wouldn’t stick around with them in the Allsvenskan. He was able to break from his contract and join Skellefteå AIK on a new two-year deal to stay in the SHL scene. Yet, even that had it’s mid-season change. Pettersson ended up with the Växjö Lakers HC to end his 2016-17 season. He played 24 games for Skellefteå AIK and 27 games with Växjö Lakers HC.
It had appeared at this point that the North American pro scene and Pettersson just were never meant to cross paths. Time had been steadily going forward and fluctuating time in different teams across Sweden couldn’t have made things easy.
Pettersson was 23-years of age during the last off-season and had yet to make the splash. Patience had been everything at this stage in his career. And it finally paid off when the Nashville Predators signed him to a two-year entry level contract. It then didn’t take long for Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason to tell how skilled he is.
“His hands,” stated Evason of what he first noticed of Pettersson’s abilities. “You immediately see the vision that he has. He is definitely a pass-first guy. I think he, for most of the year, has had success likely because he waited a little bit longer to come over. The growing pains weren’t as big as maybe an eighteen or nineteen year old player coming over, twenty even.”
Still, as always, there is going to be some real growing pains with translating from the European style game to the smaller rinks and faster and more physical nature of North American pro hockey.
“It’s been up and down,” said Pettersson of his first season in North America. “It’s a bit different, of course. It’s been a process of learning. Mostly engaging battles in other ways than I’ve done before. Overall it has been pretty good. I still think I could do better but overall I feel I have more to give.”
“Everybody that plays in Europe goes through that because people are on top of you right away,” followed Evason. “There is not the space to get away. Certainly his game he is able to draw people to him and then find the open players. Here, there’s nowhere to really take that puck as opposed to there – you’ve got another few feet that you can get away from people to see the ice. But he has done a really good job. He’s lead our team or been close to the team lead in points all year. So he has done a nice job adjusting.”
Pettersson’s path to Milwaukee hasn’t really followed some of the norms of recent European prospects that the Predators organization has brought in over the last handful of seasons.
Kevin Fiala was brought over early from HV71 of the SHL in order to accelerate his North American pro development at the age of 18-years old. Vladislav Kamenev started his pro career leaving a highly successful Metallurg Magnitogorsk side in Russia’s KHL in order to also get started playing in the AHL as an 18-year old. Miikka Salomäki was 20-years old in his first AHL season. Viktor Arvidsson was 21-years old in his first AHL season.
So, where did Pettersson’s development fall in line with other European imports of recent memory? Did him playing in Sweden for as long as he did hurt or actually help in his developmental process?
“It’s hard to tell,” answered Pettersson. “I think it helped. I gained a lot of experience. I had four-years of pro over in Sweden. I know the drill. I know how to take care of my body. I know how to take care of myself. But it’s hard to tell if I would have come over here two-years ago where I would be in my career right now.”
“It’s hard to tell but I think it has been mostly positive. I’ve been taking steps every year like back in Sweden. It hasn’t really been a rush just taking things as they come. I’ve been wanting to come over here to North America since the day I got drafted. Before this season I got that chance and I took it.”
What can often be overlooked by most isn’t simply the on-ice development but the growth of the person away from the rink. Pettersson has been living on his own since he was 16-years old. He has had to mature fast and learn a ton about responsibilities that go beyond the game of hockey itself.
“I think that’s more common in Sweden to move by yourself when you’re younger – at least when you’re a hockey player,” suggested Pettersson. “I’ve been living by myself for a long time. I learned early how to take care of myself, how to cook, how to clean. All the basic stuff you have to know in your life. I think that’s helped me so far in my career.”
These same challenges can come from the mental preparations away from the game, as well. With Pettersson he went through a draft process once, went unclaimed, but managed to focus on what he could. The ultimate goal for all players is to be in the NHL. Yet, the knowledge of how long of a road it can be can help those willing to meet all the challenges along that path.
“Of course everyone here wants to be in the NHL, everyone wants to be at their best, at the highest level possible,” said Pettersson of managing expectations. “But it’s not going to help me to think that way. “I think I should be here, I want to be here, I want to to do that.” Control what you can control – and that’s it. You can’t do more than your best. See where it takes you.”
It did not take Pettersson long at all to show off what he can do. In his North American pro debut with the Milwaukee Admirals he scored a dazzling shorthanded goal and notched an assist in a road tilt against the Iowa Wild. The speed, coordination, and skill all jumped off the charts on that first goal. Still, there were many elements that were miles different than the style of hockey Pettersson had been used to.
“The puck possession,” said Pettersson of the major differences between Europe and America. “In Europe, at least in Sweden, you try to keep the puck all the time. You don’t go up and down the ice as often. It’s not as important to just get up North every time you get the puck. You take the puck back, d-to-d, always a tape to tape pass. That’s the biggest difference for me. That’s what the game is when you have a smaller rink. The ice surface is a lot smaller. It’s different but it is fun.”
“The situations play out different,” continued Pettersson. “It’s hard to explain. It’s just more battling over here. It’s not like in Europe you don’t have a hit all game. But it’s more puck control and you try to gain speed through all battles. In Europe you want to get back. There’s so much ice to cover. Here it’s more if you can finish your guy it’s good.”
“It’s nice for him to see the physical game over here,” said Evason of Pettersson adapting to a more physical style game. “He’s had some challenges with that a little bit. But the last half-year of the season he has been as strong and as physical as he needs to be to compete at this level and the NHL level.”
Challenge is important. And, for all that was being thrown at Pettersson in the early stages of the season, he was still showing well enough to be selected as an AHL All-Star. Because of the amount of time he has spent playing professionally in Sweden he doesn’t qualify as an AHL rookie. Yet, if he did, he would be tied for eighth in the AHL in rookie scoring and be fourth among AHL rookies for assists. For now though, Pettersson is the man leading the Admirals in scoring in his first season of North American pro hockey: 42 points (12 goals, 30 assists) in 63 games.
“I’ve been developing it better here,” smiled Pettersson. “If you do something more often you have to get better at it. That’s just how life goes. I think that’s it. It’s a more simplified game than it is in Europe. And that’s a thing you have to learn.”
“He’s obviously got a lot of talent,” said Evason. “I think his skating has to catch a little bit more of a step but that will come with his training. He’s not the strongest guy yet but he’s got a good frame so he’ll be able to put some muscle on as he goes forward here.”
What will it now take for Pettersson to be an NHL name? Well, I suppose that question depends on whether or not you are asking a Nashville Predators audience versus a Vancouver Canucks audience. Emil’s brother happens to be pretty darn good.
Emil’s younger brother, Elias, was selected fifth overall in the 2017 NHL Draft by the Canucks. If Elias isn’t simply producing highlight reel goals for club or country it could be seeing him make news such as him breaking the SHL record for the most points ever scored by an under-20 talent that pop the name “Pettersson” into the hockey news cycle routinely these days. But, for Emil, he can’t help but simply be proud of his little brother.
“For me, he’s not one of the hottest prospects in the world he’s just my brother,” smiled Pettersson. “He’s a regular person for me, he’s a family member, he’s one of the people I love. I’m sure he is going to play in the show next year. He’s that good.”
Emil has been able to keep in touch with his brother Elias throughout this whirlwind season for both of them. The conversations not always about hockey but big brother knows he has a place in helping little brother not get too far ahead of himself.
“I’m trying to mentor him as much as I can,” said Pettersson of his brother. “On the ice I don’t know if I have anything stuff to teach him. I think he does that pretty good on his own! I’m just trying to put down expectations a bit and just be a big brother.”
So, who reaches the NHL first: Emil or Elias? As someone whose first year of draft eligibility came and went without much fuss – I can’t imagine Emil is worried. Both have that goal to be in the NHL one day. It would be terrific if both could play at the same time or even on the same team as Emil’s career path always saw him leave a team just as Elias was getting going. Still, Emil’s knowledge taken from a season in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals has given him a good amount of experience to take with him into the eventual off-season.
“The most important thing is speed,” said Pettersson of what he needs to make the leap to the NHL. “Being faster. Start. Stop. Not to lose guys and get those extra couple of feet when you turn around in a corner and go to the net. Overall, just work hard in the Summer to be hopefully a little faster and a little stronger. I think I have the rest at least.”
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