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Forgot about Jake? Can Virtanen still hit 20 goals this season?

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Still the same O.G. but he’s been low-key.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Flashback to Halloween night, 2018. The Vancouver Canucks were taking on the Chicago Blackhawks in Rogers Arena and Jake Virtanen had the first two goal game of his NHL career. But, it’s not only that Virtanen scored two goals… it’s how he scored them. On both goals Virtanen simply RIPPED the puck high over Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford after fighting his way to open ice.

Remember these beauties?

At that point Virtanen’s confidence and production was sky high and the “Shotgun Jake” movement was in full effect. Virtanen had five goals in the season’s first month and was third in team scoring behind Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, prompting Canucks fans to proclaim that Big Jake had finally arrived as an impact player in the NHL. Since then though, Virtanen’s goals per game production has plummeted from .35 to just .22. For the first time this season Virtanen’s goal per game pace has dropped below 20, which was the number that prompted Shotgun Jake in the first place.

Virtanen has just three goals in his past 20 games, but there’s reason to believe that he’ll rebound. Virtanen’s underlying numbers seem to suggest that his luck will turn around and anyone who has watched this team in the past two weeks will tell you that Jake has been one of the most snake-bitten forward on the team (pun intended). In his latest article for the Vancouver Courier, Pass it to Bulis’ Daniel Wagner pulls some stats from naturalstattrick.com that prove this theory.

Would it surprise you to learn that Virtanen actually leads the Canucks with 8.35 shots on goal per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time? He also leads the team with 14.93 shot attempts per 60 minutes. What this data suggests is that the puck should start going in for Jake. But with just11 goals through 48 games, will Jake’s luck improve enough for him to hit the 20 goal plateau for the first time in his career? He has the skill and analytics on his side, but the fate of Shotgun Jake rests almost solely in the hands of head coach Travis Green. Whether or not Virtanen hits 20 goals or not this year will be determined in large part by his usage under Green in the team’s final 34 games.

“I know he’d like to score and probably get a few more points,” Green said earlier this week when discussing Virtanen’s struggles lately. “He’s not the only guy in our group.”

“We’ve got him in a spot where he’s playing against top-end players, top lines almost,” continued Green. “He’s playing on the Sutter line, on the checking line, and he’s not, by no means, been a liability defensively and, for me, with his skating, that’s a real bonus.”

It’s hard to argue with Green on this one, as Virtanen’s defensive play, particularly along the sideboards in the defensive zone and neutral zone, has improved immensely this season. In his first three NHL seasons Virtanen was often guilty of flying the zone or trying to chip and chase in the neutral zone too often. There’s no denying that Virtanen can fly with open ice and has a world class shot, but if you can’t win puck battles and play the boards effectively, especially at 225 pounds, you won’t find many coaches in the NHL who will entrust you with significant minutes.

The best case scenario for Virtanen in the long run is to remain stapled alongside Sutter and take on those tough assignments so that he can refine his defensive game. The best case scenario for Shotgun Jake enthusiasts, of course, is for Virtanen to play with more skilled players like Bo Horvat or Elias Pettersson.

At nearly every point along the way, the Canucks have taken the big picture approach with Virtanen’s development. It seems unlikely at this point that they’ll force him into a goal scorer’s role when he’s playing well and simply getting unlucky in his current role This likely means that he’ll remain alongside Sutter for the remainder of the season, barring an injury to Brock Boeser.

Now, this doesn’t mean that 20 goals is out of the realm of possibility, even if Virtanen stays in his checking role. Both the eye test and the analytics point to a turnaround in luck for Virtanen, which would put him back on a 20 goal pace. Let’s just hope that the big man doesn’t run out of games before his luck turns.

My hot take prediction: Big Jake goes on a tear and ends up with 22 goals, thereby fulling Mike Halford and Jason Brough’s Shotgun Jake prophecy.