I wholeheartedly believe that Jake Virtanen will be an impact player for the Vancouver Canucks for a long time. Based on comparisons to other power forwards from past and present, I believe Virtanen is nearing a breakout season that we could see as early as next season. The stage was set for a Cinderella story when the Abbotsford, British Columbia native was drafted sixth overall by the Canucks at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. However, many folks in Vancouver had heard of Virtanen long before the Canucks called his name in 2014.
Virtanen was born in New Westminster and grew up in Langley and Abbotsford; thus, many people who often found themselves at minor hockey games knew his name. If you didn’t know his name, you would find yourself asking those sitting around you “Who is that kid?” as Virtanen skated circles around his opponents on the ice. As a member of the Abbotsford Hawks Bantam A1 team in the 2010-11 season, Virtanen potted 68 goals and picked up 49 assists in just 59 games. That pure dominance at the young age of 14 years old was enough to draw the attention of scouts everywhere.
Virtanen Takes the WHL by Storm
Virtanen was selected first overall by the Calgary Hitmen in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. He played nine games with the Hitmen in 2011-12, before suiting up for 62 games with the Hitmen the following season. In his draft year in 2013-14, Virtanen absolutely exploded, scoring 45 goals and picking up 26 assists in 71 games. In that same year, Virtanen further showcased his abilities to NHL scouts by picking up six points in seven games at the U18 World Junior Championship.
As a result, Virtanen was ranked sixth-best among North American skaters available at the draft by NHL Central Scouting in their final rankings before the big day. Virtanen, as I said, was drafted by his hometown team, the Vancouver Canucks at sixth overall. The Canucks passed on players such as Nikolaj Ehlers, David Pastrnak, and William Nylander to select him. Due to the success these players have had at the NHL level, the Canucks have been criticized for picking Virtanen at that draft. Some even labelled him as a bust after he was sent down to the AHL in 2016.
Far From Busts: Cam Neely and Jake Virtanen
When you compare Virtanen’s numbers to other power forwards who have had successful careers, then you can quickly find out that the Canucks need to be patient with the young power forward and his development. The players I will compare Virtanen to all had successful careers, and one of them is still active. Ironically, all three are power forwards who have played for the Canucks, and one of them is currently on the active roster. The first power forward to compare Virtanen with is another BC boy in the form of Cam Neely. Neely is a great example of why it’s not a great idea to give up on a young power forward.
Neely was a force to be reckoned with in junior hockey. He led the Portland Winterhawks to their first Memorial Cup in the 1982-83 season, on the heels of a regular season in which he scored 56 goals and finished with 120 points overall in just 72 games played. Neely was drafted by the Canucks at ninth overall at the 1983 NHL Draft. In his first season with the Canucks, Neely scored 16 goals and picked up 15 assists through 56 games. He suited up for 72 games the following season, scoring 21 goals and totalling 39 points overall. In his third and final season in Vancouver, Neely scored 14 goals and racked up 20 assists through 73 games.
This slight dip in production was enough for the Canucks to pull the trigger and trade him to the Boston Bruins, at just 20 years old. Neely went on to score 36 goals and amassed 72 total points in 75 games with the Bruins the following season. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Neely enjoyed a long and successful career in the NHL and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005. Virtanen is about to get set to play his fourth season as a member of the Vancouver Canucks. Although he was younger, it was in his fourth season that Neely put it all together. Here’s hoping Jake can do the same.
Who could forget Todd Bertuzzi? He was a key member to the memorable “West Coast Express” line of the early 2000s featuring Brendan Morrison and former Canucks’ captain Markus Naslund. Bertuzzi was the epitome of an effective power forward in the NHL. Much like Neely and Virtanen, Bertuzzi found success at the CHL level with the Guelph Storm of the OHL. In his draft year, Bertuzzi put up 27 goals and 31 assists through 60 games. That was good enough for the New York Islanders to select him in the first round of the 1993 draft, at 23rd overall.
Bertuzzi made his Islanders debut in the 1995-96 season, registering 18 goals and 21 assists through 76 games. Unfortunately for Big Bert, the sophomore slump hit and he picked up just 10 goals and 13 assists through 64 games the following season; a season in which he also played 13 games with the Utah Grizzlies of the now-defunct International Hockey League, similar to the modern-day ECHL. The following season, Bertuzzi put up just seven goals and 11 assists through 52 games before being dealt to the Vancouver Canucks mid-season.
He finished the 1997-98 season by registering six goals and nine assists through 22 games with the Canucks. In the 1999-00 season, Bertuzzi had his breakout year when he scored 25 goals and picked up 25 assists in 80 games. That means he was 24 years old when he finally put it all together and turned into the efficient power forward that fans in Vancouver know and love.
For the next four seasons, Bertuzzi would serve as an alternate captain for the Canucks. In the 2001-02 campaign he scored 36 goals, and in the following year, scored a career-high 46. Bertuzzi enjoyed his prime years with the Canucks and when all was said and done, finished his career with over 300 goals.
Finally, Micheal Ferland was the offseason pickup who fans in Vancouver know all too well. Ferland was a huge reason, if not the main reason, that the Canucks were eliminated from the 2015 playoffs in the first round by the Calgary Flames. Fans, much like many of the Canucks who fell victim to him finishing hard checks on them at every chance he got, obviously hated Ferland, but now, the team is getting an established power forward who can not only protect Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser but also pick up some points thanks to the offensively gifted linemates he will likely be playing with.
Ferland was 22 years old when he made his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames. In the two seasons prior, Ferland spent time in the WHL, ECHL, and the AHL. After getting called up in the 2014-15 season, Ferland didn’t make much of an impact until playoffs rolled around. Then his presence was really felt. In the 2016-17 season, at the age of 24, Ferland had identical numbers to Jake Virtanen’s 2018-19 season, in which Virtanen played less games in, and all the while is still only 22. Unlike Neely and Bertuzzi, Ferland’s team didn’t give up on him and allowed him to become the effective power forward he is today. The Canucks must do the same with Virtanen.
To say it takes more time for power forwards to develop is an understatement. The three players I’ve mentioned here all took around three to four years to finally put it all together and break the 20-goal mark. As Virtanen gets set for his fourth full season with the Canucks, something tells me that the best is yet to come and that he, much like the other players mentioned, just needs a little bit more time to learn what it takes to be an effective scorer in the NHL. In my opinion, Virtanen is nearing a huge breakout season, similar to the ones Neely and Bertuzzi experienced.