Emilio Pettersen advancing from supporting cast to key player for red-hot Wranglers
Photo credit:Candice Ward/Calgary Wranglers
By Mike Gould10 months ago
Until recently, Emilio Pettersen was a relatively anonymous player stuck in the mushy middle of the Calgary Flames’ forward prospect ranks.
The Norwegian winger showed flashes of brilliance in his first two AHL seasons with the Stockton Heat, but they were only ever just that — flashes. At 5’10” and 180 pounds, Pettersen is bigger than both Jakob Pelletier and Matthew Phillips but struggled to score or drive play to the same extent in his rookie and sophomore campaigns.
It took a bit of a grind for Pettersen to even nail down a regular spot in the lineup with the inaugural Wranglers. The 22-year-old sat out of Calgary’s season-opening game against the Coachella Valley Firebirds on Oct. 16, made his season debut the following night, and then missed three of the next five games before drawing back into the lineup for good.
Pettersen has improved over the course of the 2022–23 season to the point that he’s become an indispensable part of this Wranglers team. He’s averaging 2.06 shots per game, a significant uptick from his first two seasons. His +15 rating leads the entire team. And, save for a slight downturn in January, he’s been scoring at a consistent rate.
Through 33 games with the Wranglers this year, Pettersen ranks fifth on the team with 27 points and fourth with 11 goals (adding another gritty one in Tuesday’s 4–3 win over the Ontario Reign). He’s disciplined, too: Pettersen’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first period of Tuesday’s game marked his first trip to the penalty box since Dec. 31.
Pettersen has seen more ice time as the season has progressed for two main reasons: he’s gotten better, and the team has been ransacked. As Phillips, Pelletier, Walker Duehr, and Radim Zohorna have spent time with the Flames this season, Pettersen has been relied upon heavily to fill the resulting vacuums.
In earning that responsibility, Pettersen has continued to work at gaining something else from the coaching staff: trust. Although he’s largely graduated to regular status for this Wranglers team over the course of the season, he missed their game against the Abbotsford Canucks on Jan. 21 and found himself in the bottom six upon his return to the lineup on Tuesday.
Save for a four-game dry spell around New Years’ and a two-game skid to start the extended Abbotsford series this past weekend, Pettersen hasn’t been held off the scoreboard in consecutive contests all year long. But even a strong season has its ups and downs. If Pettersen and Jeremie Poirier are of any indication, not even the team’s leading scorers are immune from the press box.
“You come out the lineup every once in a while and you get back in, you should be hungry,” Wranglers head coach Mitch Love said after a game earlier this season. “We’ve had guys who have sat out for performance and come back in and had a response. That’s what you’re looking for. It’s an accountability piece for our group. I know it’s a developmental league but you’re a pro, you’re paid to perform.
“He’s a guy who’s confident with the puck, and that’s part of his game,” Love continued. “You’ve got to want the puck on your stick to make those plays and get rewarded for it. The expectation for our group, if you don’t have the puck, is to make sure you check the game and are in the right spots so you can get that puck back.”
One of Pettersen’s best moments of the season, to date, came in the third period of Calgary’s 5–2 win over the San Diego Gulls back on Dec. 11. With the Wranglers already up by a pair, Pettersen took advantage of a sloppy Gulls change and beat goaltender Olle Eriksson Ek on a breakaway with a beautiful one-handed tuck deke.
Was that particular move always the plan?
“No, I had no idea what I was doing,” Pettersen laughed. “The puck kind of rolled up on me and it just goes with instincts, I guess. It was a good move.”
For the most part, Pettersen’s breakthrough season hasn’t been about flashy dekes and highlight-reel goals. He’s a sturdy player with good wheels and an increasing willingness to use his dangerous shot.
Pettersen took just nine shots in his first seven games of the season. Since then, he’s fired 59 shots in 26 games — including 22 in his last nine outings. Through 33 games this year, Pettersen has failed to record a shot only twice.
“I want to be better,” Pettersen said. “It’s just about trying to help the team every night. My mindset is just doing the little things right and the rest will come. That’s got to be the mindset for every guy.”
Asked to play a slightly different role against Ontario on Tuesday, Pettersen managed to fire three shots on Reign goaltender Cal Petersen and remained relentless in pursuit of the puck to score a power-play goal in the second period.
Pettersen has spent most of the season on the left side of the Wranglers’ second forward unit with Connor Zary and Cole Schwindt. He’s been key in 5-on-4 situations and has shown tremendous versatility in shifting around the lineup.
Playing in Pelletier’s spot on the top line against the Henderson Silver Knights last week, Pettersen figured into two of the Wranglers’ three goals in the two-game series and showed chemistry with both Phillips and Zohorna.
Before this season, it didn’t look like a given that the Flames would re-sign Pettersen as a pending restricted free agent. Now, he’s become a legitimate call-up candidate. While he isn’t the biggest, fastest, or most skilled player on the farm, Pettersen is a hard-working little waterbug who can score and grind in equal measure.
Pettersen’s entry-level contract is set to expire this coming July, just under three months after his 23rd birthday. Until then, he’ll be relied upon by a Wranglers team with legitimate Calder Cup aspirations.
The Wranglers rank second in the entire AHL with a 28–10–1 record through 39 games. Their fiercest competition, Coachella Valley, is the only team ahead of them in the standings. It’s going to be a marathon to the end of the regular season and a sprint after that.
Even without the likes of Pelletier, Duehr, Connor Mackey, and Adam Ruzicka, the Flames’ farm team is stacked to the nines with talented young players. And make no mistake: Pettersen has become one of the best ones.
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