The Vancouver Canucks have advanced to the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs with significant contributions from the team’s bottom-six forwards. In Games Five and Six against St. Louis, Tyler Motte scored four goals. When one considers the increased emphasis on attacking from the corners and keeping the puck low in the offensive zone, it seems logical that a player like Jake Virtanen would also have found greater success. Indeed, it seemed very much so that he had found his rhythm.
Throughout both July and August, Virtanen has been the subject of much criticism. His 18-goal performance in the 2019-20 regular season has not translated into any semblance of offensive production in the current postseason campaign. From the very beginning of the team’s July training camp, there were issues that the coaching staff seemed unhappy about. When the qualifying round began, Virtanen was designated a healthy scratch. He only re-joined the lineup after Tyler Toffoli and Adam Gaudette were deemed “unfit to play” before Game Two against Minnesota. Toffoli sustained a foot injury, while Gaudette has since returned to the lineup.
In nine playoff games since his postseason debut this August, Virtanen has recorded just one goal and one assist. He has averaged just 10:10 of ice time per game and has generally been used in a checking role.
With the Canucks struggling to generate any effective pressure against the St. Louis Blues in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, it felt very much like the opponent had stolen away all momentum from Vancouver.
The Canucks had already relinquished a 2-0 series lead, were down by a score of 3-1 in the second period of Game Five, and seemingly had no response to the Blues’ aggressive strategy.
Then came the line change.
Coach Travis Green assigned Virtanen to the top line alongside Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller’s for several shifts in the second period of Game Five. During the course of this experiment, Virtanen scored both of his two points. He assisted on Miller’s crucial goal 3-2 to cut the deficit to one and then scored the game’s tying goal five minutes later. Both goals were generated from down low with all three forwards working in tandem on the forecheck.
This newly-adjusted line inspired not only the comeback victory but became the basis for the team’s approach in Game Six. The Blues had neutralized the Canucks’ offense from the point and contained the Vancouver attackers to the perimeter of the rink. The team’s outside shots were no problem for Blues goaltender Jake Allen.
The Canucks needed to take the puck deep into the offensive zone and bring the puck into the high-percentage areas. They needed to attack with speed and play a relentless style. This made Jake Virtanen the obvious option to remain on the top line in Game Six after his work in the previous match.
Brock Boeser, the usual linemate of Pettersson and Miller, received 18:42 of ice time in Game Five, but was limited to only 12:31 in Game Six.
One could rightfully assert that Virtanen’s forechecking role alongside Pettersson and Miller provided them with additional space in the corners of the offensive zone, but one must not overstate its effect.
Virtanen is heavier than Boeser and possesses greater strength to protect the puck. When the Canucks needed to keep the puck down in the corner, Virtanen was the better fit. Overall, though, Virtanen generated very little actual sustained pressure in the offensive zone during Game Six and was often a passenger on the forecheck. J.T. Miller has shown time and time again that he can close the distance against an opponent effectively. Virtanen, on the other hand, did not do this in Game Six.
He often seemed a half-step behind. Unlike his frequent linemate Tyler Motte, whose ability to anticipate and attack in a timely fashion often causes turnovers and puts the opponent in difficult positions, Jake Virtanen does not cause the opposing puck carrier to make rushed decisions. He does not recognize where to be quite as quickly as Motte and is not able to disrupt the opponent’s zone exits or apply effective pressure. In terms of skating, he is perhaps faster in a straight line but not as agile as Motte, and thus he can not change his direction and keep his momentum quite as easily as the latter can. This is besides the point, however. Anticipation is the key difference.
The NHL’s official statistics are a little deceptive, as it is clear from our footage that Virtanen threw more than one bodycheck in Game Six. He played a fairly physical game. However, he usually landed these hits after the puck had already been moved.
He has a few advantages over Brock Boeser in the corners of the offensive zone: his strength and relative quickness. Standing at 6’1’’ and weighing 226 pounds, he can protect the puck and shift along the boards better than Boeser can. This can buy time for his linemates to position themselves nearby to provide puck support.
However, in terms of playmaking and team possession, Virtanen did not move the puck effectively out of the corners or relay it to an open teammate with any degree of consistency. Boeser is a better puck-cycler and playmaker when he is able to spin off the boards with the puck. Virtanen’s creativity is limited.
This line adjustment against St. Louis was important for the Canucks, as it allowed Elias Pettersson’s line to spend more time deep in the offensive zone than it had been able to with Boeser on the ice. However, it was only a mild upgrade in terms of possession down low, and in some regards a downgrade as the playmaking ability of Boeser was lost. More important is that it was emblematic of the team’s aggressive, team-based forechecking and emphasis on puck support at both ends of the rink in Game Six.
As far as pressuring the opposing puck carrier is concerned, Virtanen is not particularly effective, and it might be a mistake to continue assuming that he can be a dangerous offensive contributor from the boards. The Canucks’ strategy in these most recent two games was to forecheck and generate offense from down low — specifically what many believed would allow Virtanen to thrive.
This was not quite the case.
We gained a greater sense of his limitations but also his strengths after Game Six.
Footage from the Canucks’ final game before the March 2020 stoppage, a match against the New York Islanders, reveals the same ineffectiveness of Virtanen at generating sustained pressure along the boards.
This past season, he averaged 6.77 hits per game, which is in the same ballpark as Evander Kane (6.47), Vladimir Tarasenko (6.30). In fact, his body-checking frequency has steadily declined over the past three seasons from 10.41 per game in 2017-18 to 8.90 per game in 2018-19 to 6.77 this past year. His point and goal totals, in that same span, have steadily risen.
His best attribute, by far, is his ability to use his speed and size in a straight line with room to maneuver in front of him. On three separate occasions during his 12:41 of ice time in Game Six, he flew past the St. Louis Blues’ defence and bee-lined directly towards the goal. This was one of his signature scoring methods at the junior level and remains one of his primary methods at the NHL level. He possesses a heavy shot, and is most dangerous when he combines it with his speed off the rush.
He is an open-ice sniper and north-south puck-rusher who needs time and space to score goals. He does not create offense by overpowering or out-maneuvering the opposition along the boards. Instead, these scenarios often entrap him. Six years after he was selected by the Vancouver Canucks, this is still not the type of game that he plays despite all of the fan base’s hopes that he could become a power forward. That is not his style of play.
Virtanen does not possess the forechecking ability to generate offense in the same manner as a power forward would. He has always scored with his speed. Over the course of his development, he has become better at taking the puck past the defender and to the net, whereas in earlier seasons he would usually shoot from afar. The fact that he uses his speed now to skate around the opponent and drive into the high-percentage scoring areas is a very positive sign.
Kingston Frontenacs analytics expert Bryce Chevallier offered his perspective of Virtanen in July.
A look at Jake Virtanen— Bryce Chevallier (@FauxCentre) July 3, 2020
He has great physical tools in strength and skating which he uses to drive the net. He is a very straight line player though. A typical power forward would create lots of net-front chances or forecheck hard but Virtanen seems to not play in those areas pic.twitter.com/QWsvH1BEct
One must remember that his 18-goal campaign occurred this season, and it happened while he averaged just 13:05 of ice time per game — third-line minutes. He took 150 shots in 69 games and averaged 2.19 shots per game. On the second-unit powerplay, he received just 60:24 of total PP ice time this year, whereas the first unit players played upwards of 267 total minutes on the powerplay.
Virtanen scored six powerplay goals and recorded nine powerplay points with 0:53 of PP TOI per game during the 2019-20 regular season. Brock Boeser, the sniper who received substantially-decreased ice time in favor of Virtanen in Game Six, scored five powerplay goals and fourteen powerplay points with 4:07 of PP TOI per game and a total of 234:51 of PP TOI on the first unit this season.
One must wonder about the potential of the right-handed Virtanen on the left side of the first unit. He might add a much-needed one-timer to the left side that isn’t quite present when Boeser stations himself in that position. When Tyler Toffoli returns to the Canucks’ lineup, there will certainly be additional adjustments to the powerplay units.
Jake Virtanen is among the league’s fastest players once he reaches top speed with the puck. In a straight line, he might be a quicker and more powerful skater than any other player on the Vancouver Canucks’ roster. He demonstrated his skill set on three separate occasions in Game Six despite not scoring. There certainly is potential for this player to continue to improve. If the Canucks can harness his speed off the rush and place him on the ice with a distributor who can catch him at full flight as well as in the soft areas of the offensive zone, we may be able to see Virtanen play to his full potential.
Virtanen seems to generate more rush offense from the left side, especially as a right-handed shot. Shooting from the off-wing gives him better angles, and he can one-time from the left side. He currently plays right wing.
In February 2018, Travis Green told The Province: “I’ve thought of playing him everywhere, but he’s a natural right-winger... Has it popped into my head? Yeah. But I want Jake to master playing right wing.”
If he is moved to the left wing, it gives the Canucks the opportunity to play him with Tyler Toffoli, who as a right winger is a neutral zone puck distributor. We looked at Toffoli’s game in a previous article.
His career-high of 18 goals this season was another step forward. This is what everyone has waited for: consistent goal production from the former 45-goal scorer of the Calgary Hitmen. One should not lose sight of how he scored those 18 goals and what he should do to build upon his success.