Jake Virtanen is now 23 years old. When he was the Vancouver Canucks’ sixth-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Canucks fans were excited because he’s a native of New Westminster, one of Vancouver’s eastern suburbs. It’s always nice when a young player has a successful career close to his home.
However, after four seasons, Virtanen hadn’t experienced much NHL success. Although he set career highs last season with 15 goals and 25 points, more had been expected from him.
This season is different, though. Virtanen, with the season less than halfway completed (40 games out of an 82-game schedule), has 12 goals, 11 assists, and 23 points. In fact, over his last 15 games, his 14 points make him almost a point-a-game player.
In this post, I’d like to trace his success over the season.
Virtanen’s Success Started Late in October
The Canucks started the preseason by playing the Calgary Flames on Sept. 16. Virtanen scored twice in that game, including the overtime winner, and the Canucks opened with a 3-2 comeback victory.
However, Virtanen couldn’t carry that success into the regular season and his first eight games were unremarkable. He scored two assists while playing on the third line, and it was expected that’s where he’d likely spend the season. His stock had fallen over the seasons, and the highest hope was that he might push his career-high totals to the 30-point area.
On Oct. 22, Virtanen finally scored a goal in a 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. It was the eventual game-winning goal and came halfway through the third period breaking a 2-2 tie. It was just Virtanen’s third point in the first nine games of the season.
He followed that by scoring in an Oct. 25 6-5 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals. It was the team’s fifth goal and looked like icing on the cake until the Capitals came roaring back to tie the game in the third period. That goal gave the 23-year-old winger four points in his 10 games for the season.
Virtanen was gaining confidence and expanding his game. On Oct. 28, he scored another goal in a 7-2 win over the Florida Panthers. Suddenly, he had goals in three straight games. That goal was also a game-winner, so his goals were coming at opportune times for his team. Virtanen, whose lack of scoring throughout his career made people see him more as a physical presence on the ice, was starting to score as well.
In November, Virtanen Began Scoring Goals
Although Virtanen’s ice time was sporadic – one game he’d log less than eight minutes and the next around 12 minutes – he made the most of that time. Although he skated less than 12 minutes in a Nov. 2 game against the San Jose Sharks, he scored a goal and an assist. Those two points gave him seven points in 14 games, and his game was changing. He was more engaged in the team’s offense.
In a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 7, Virtanen tipped in an Alexander Edler point shot with 61 seconds left in the third period. It was his fifth goal of the season, all of them scored in his last eight games. For a player who had only two assists during his first eight games of the season, he was having perhaps the best scoring streak of his career and it looked as if he might break last season’s career-high of 15 goals.
On Nov. 14, Virtanen scored a goal in a 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars but then went five games without even an assist. He was up to six goals and nine points in 20 games, and then he stopped scoring.
Fortunately, he didn’t return to his early-season drought. Virtanen scored a goal and assist in the team’s 8-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was his second multi-point game of the season and snapped his five-game scoring drought. That game started a bit of a streak for the third-line right-winger.
Virtanen Had a Really Good December
In 15 games from Nov. 27 to Dec. 29, Virtanen scored in 10 of them. In fact, in four games, he scored multiple points. Still, his ice time wasn’t increasing much. Perhaps even better, he was a third-line forward who was starting to score.
Although Virtanen had sometimes been hot and sometimes cold during the early season, his December scoring increased and he ended the month of December with 11 points in the team’s 13 games.
Until mid-December, his role as a third-line winger and lack of power-play time made it unlikely he’d score much more. Then, in back-to-back games on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15, Virtanen scored in each game. Although they were losses, head coach Travis Green began to give the young winger more time on the power play, and he responded.
On Dec. 15, he scored a power-play goal in a 6-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. On Dec. 20, in the team’s 5-4 overtime win against the same Golden Knights, Virtanen had two assists, one on the power-play. On Dec. 21, he scored a power-play goal in a 4-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Then on Dec. 28, he scored two points a goal and an assist, both on the power play, in a 5-2 win over the Calgary Flames. He followed up on Dec. 29 by scoring a goal against the Los Angeles Kings as the Canucks won back-to-back games. It was also the team’s fifth-straight victory.
What’s Virtanen’s Potential for the Season
For a third-line right-winger who averages about 12 minutes per game, Virtanen certainly adds value to the Canucks’ roster. He gives the team secondary scoring and a physical presence on the ice.
If coach Green continues to increase his power-play time, as he’s done in December, Virtanen has the potential to smash all his career marks. His four goals and two assists in his last seven games is decent scoring even for a top-six player.
If the Canucks end their playoff drought, Virtanen might be a player to watch. In the NHL postseason, players who are both physical and can score goals often make a huge difference.