When news broke that Jake Virtanen had failed to meet the offseason fitness goals set out for him, Canucks fans everywhere let out a collective groan. The failure to meet these goals, measured at training camp resulted in Virtanen being placed with the third skating group which was composed of AHL-bound players.
Third group is on the ice, what name doesn't fit? pic.twitter.com/91yZOGNiy4— Chris Faber (@ChrisFaber39) September 13, 2019
Disappointment with Virtanen was not something new to Canucks fans as he had recorded a measly 59 points through his first 210 NHL games, all while looking somewhere between lost and clueless most of the time in his own zone. Fans bemoaned Virtanen’s lacklustre playmaking skills and tendency to rush decisions as his 2014 NHL Draft peers started to see success of their own.
Virtanen was the first selection of general manager Jim Benning’s regime and has been known by people in Vancouver hockey circles since he was a teenager. Growing up in Abbotsford and Langley, suburbs of Vancouver, Virtanen scored 117 points in 59 games in Bantam for the local team, the Abbotsford Hawks, before being drafted to the Calgary Hitman of the WHL. Virtanen was a man among boys as he used his big frame and strong skating to dominate minor and junior hockey.
Still, feelings were mixed when the Canucks selected Virtanen with the 6th overall pick in 2014. It’s hard enough making the transition to being a professional while you are a teenager, and it’s only harder when you are in your hometown with a magnifying glass on every move.
Canucks fans that had not heard of Virtanen were introduced to the physical phenom when he rocked a rookie Connor McDavid during the 2014 young stars games.
Virtanen would show flashes and keep fans excited even when he wasn’t performing. He has always possessed the attributes of being an impact NHL player with his size, shot and speed. Many forget that he won the the Canucks 2018 fastest skater competition.
All too often, Virtanen would rush up the ice and use his speed, size, and strong shot to create a high danger scoring chance and then be invisible for the rest of a game. Consistency was an issue, but one that Virtanen much improved this season and it showed up in the box score.
Virtanen always had all the tools, he was just missing the toolbox. After showing that he can put it all together Virtanen’s improved play earned him some increased trust with Travis Green, as he was given some time on the second power play unit as well as some coveted time with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller on the top line.
This goal above shows some of the maturation of Virtanen’s game, namely his improved hockey sense and patience. Watch how as he collects the puck from Miller and pivots towards the net he creates a sort of 2-on-1 situation. Virtanen is on the left side of the goalie and a younger Virtanen would have done one of two things: shoot the puck or try to slide it across to Pettersson.
The defender smartly takes away the pass, allowing the goalie to square up and stop whatever tight-angled shot Virtanen could have attempted. Yet Virtanen doesn't shoot, instead pulling the puck to his backhand, driving around the net and banking the puck off the goalie into the back of the net. Virtanen’s patience is rewarded in a goal.
Virtanen looks more comfortable on the ice, almost as if the game is starting to slow down for him. The goal below is another example of Virtanen’s hockey IQ improvement.
Watch how he reads the breakout, jumping in front of the (terrible) breakout pass and causing an extremely high danger scoring chance. These types of plays were not something that we were seeing out of Virtanen on any regular basis even just last season, and his improvement has made Canucks fans excited to see the local kid do well.
It can be hard to remember at times that Virtanen, despite being a part of the organization since 2014, is only 23 years old at the moment and still very young. His physical game should translate well to the postseason when the referees start to swallow their whistles, and as he continues to improve in other aspects he will be a force to be reckoned with his dangerous combo of size and speed.
Watching the local kid develop and mature in front of our eyes has been an experience for Canucks fans, yet the vocal fan base that was critical of the selection has started to eat their words as Virtanen put together a more complete offensive game this season and if the season were not suspended had a good shot at 20 goals.
Now Virtanen still has strides to make, his defensive game isn’t great and he can disappear for periods of time, but he is still young and this season was very encouraging. As his game progresses, Canucks fans become more and more enthralled with the local kid and he is quickly becoming a fan favourite with his big hits and lethal wrist shots. Now, we all await the chance for Virtanen to play for his hometown team in the postseason? Will he get that chance?