With the acquisition of JT Miller during the 2019 NHL Draft, the Vancouver Canucks added some much-needed offense to the top six. A few days later, general manager Jim Benning turned to the defense and added Tyler Myers, Jordie Benn, and Oscar Fantenberg. All these additions definitely made the Canucks a more formidable team for next season. However, they also created a log jam in the lineup. As a result, Benning will be looking to move contracts out in the coming months to make room for them on the roster. With that in mind, let’s look at two Canucks that should not be a part of that exodus.
From the minute Jake Virtanen was selected sixth overall in the 2014 draft, expectations were sky high. He was not only a top prospect projected to be selected early, but he was also a home town boy from nearby Abbotsford. Talk about pressure. Since that day, Virtanen has gone from a top prospect with loads of potential, to a reclamation project. Playing his first season in the NHL at 18 years old, he posted 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) in 55 games. Not a bad rookie season by any means, but definitely not extraordinary.
In the 2016-17 season, he only saw ten games with the big club before being sent down to the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League. Injuries came and went and Virtanen never saw the inside of the Canucks dressing room. What he did was work tirelessly with then-Comets head coach Travis Green to improve his game to a point where he would be welcomed back into Rogers Arena. Fortunately for Virtanen, Green was promoted to head coach of the parent club the following season and the AHL became a distant memory for the Abbotsford native.
Two seasons have gone by and Virtanen continues to improve, but he still struggles with inconsistencies in his game. Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, he has posted 45 points (25 goals, 20 assists) in 145 games. Taunting fans with extraordinary skill and speed, once even outskating the uber-talented Connor McDavid.
Virtanen has shown the potential to be an elite power forward in the NHL, blending his explosive speed with intense physical play. However, there are still stretches where he is not noticeable and Green has to reiterate the importance of the little things in his game like defense and hard work.
Despite the frustrations with his lack of consistency, Virtanen has become a fan favorite in Vancouver. A Twitter hashtag was even created about him following the bold prediction by Jason Brough and Mike Halford that he would score 20 goals in the 2018-19 season. They promised that they would shotgun a beer every time Virtanen scored a goal that season. The ritual caught on and soon there were plenty of Canucks fans shotgunning beers and posting the video with the hashtag “shotgunjake.” He fell five goals short of the prediction, but a new ritual was born and more beer will be consumed as a result of it.
I hope fans are given the chance to continue the ritual this coming season, as Virtanen’s name has made the rounds in the rumor mill. I hope I’m not alone in saying that the Canucks should not give up on him just yet. The fact that his name surfaced in a package for Tyson Barrie is telling us something. Virtanen has value. However, I don’t think Benning should take advantage of it.
He is coming into the prime years of his career and will be a key part of the exciting core the Canucks are building, and as such, should be preaching patience with the soon-to-be 23 years old forward. Don’t adjust your screen, you read that correctly, he is only 23. The best is yet to come from Virtanen, and it can’t be in another uniform.
Ever since Matthew Tkachuk became an impact player in the NHL, Canucks fans have rued the day Benning selected Olli Juolevi over him in 2016 Draft. Tkachuk has gone on to play three seasons with the Calgary Flames posting 174 points (71 goals, 103 assists) in 224 games, while Juolevi has yet to play an NHL game. Additionally, analysts and fans alike have pointed to fellow defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy as misses as they have also become impact defensemen for their NHL teams.
Juolevi has traveled a different road than most of his draft cohorts. In the past three seasons, he has played in three different leagues, the Ontario Hockey League, the SM-liiga and the AHL and has had major surgeries on his back and most recently his knee. Surgeries require rehab time, which translates to less time on the ice and in the weight room, which makes it difficult to blaze a path to the NHL.
Despite the career setbacks and success of the players selected after him, I still believe the Canucks need to be patient with the Finnish rearguard and let him develop. He may not become an elite top pairing defenseman, but he will be a solid top-four option in his prime capable of running a power play and efficiently moving the puck out of the defensive zone.
With all the defense acquisitions and potential of Jett Woo and Quinn Hughes, Juolevi has become somewhat of a forgotten man. This is why he could be one of the bodies shipped out in a potential deal to acquire more help in the top six. However, I think he should still be given a chance to develop in the AHL and make more progress in the pursuit of becoming a top-four defenseman in the NHL. In fact, he needs to be in the conversation as one of the key pieces of the defense core in the next era, not a piece to be bartered with on the trade market.
Virtanen and Juolevi are both young players with loads of potential, despite the setbacks they have experienced so far. The Canucks would be wise to stay patient and watch them develop into core pieces on the team. The last thing fans and management want to see is them become impact players in another city for another fan base.