Canucks fans might recall the excitement heading into the 2015-16 season of their up and coming prospects – Jake Virtanen in particular, the sixth overall pick in 2014. After seeing the impact that Bo Horvat had as a 19 year-old in the Canucks lineup, many though he had paved the way for the new 19 year-old’s, Virtanen and Jared McCann, to earn a spot on Vancouver. While McCann has most likely cemented his spot in the lineup, Virtanen, who was considered more of a sure-bet to find a home on the roster, hasn’t found as much consistency.
But let’s not forget that in 2014-15, Horvat was injured in the preseason and got into five games with the AHL’s Utica Comets on a conditioning stint. Even after debuting with the Canucks, Horvat had only one goal, four assists and a minus-three rating in his first 19 games, and averaged under 10 minutes of ice time in over half of those games. Those numbers are nearly identical to Virtanen’s early on, who recently was assigned to the Comets for a conditioning stint following an upper body injury.
VAN plan for Jake Virtanen conditioning stint in Utica is to get in two practices and two games through the weekend.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) December 9, 2015
Spending some time in the AHL might be the best case scenario for Virtanen right now, but what if he fails to find a spot in the Canucks lineup upon his return? There’s a good chance at this point that Virtanen plays for Canada at the World Juniors, but is there a chance Vancouver sends him back to the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL? The Canucks may have to decide if the NHL or WHL is better this season for Virtanen and his development.
Virtanen Needs to Gain Offensive Confidence
Both Canucks rookies Virtanen and McCann have played to their strengths so far this season, but McCann has found a more permanent spot based on his ability to create offense. Virtanen plays a power forward game while McCann is a playmaker. The 6’1″, 208 lb Virtanen is third on the team with 53 hits, despite only playing in 19 games, and McCann is tied for fifth on the team with six goals.
Virtanen’s size and strength makes him a valuable player naturally, but it’s important for him to keep improving on his skillset since he’s at such a crucial age for his development. Virtanen has the potential to be a tremendous power forward for Vancouver in the future, but he’s not going to develop the offensive part of his game unless he actually gets a chance to play in more of those situations – at whatever level that may be.
After practice with the Comets on Thursday, the 19 year-old talked about what he wanted to work on the most in his game with the time he’ll get in the AHL:
“I think carrying the puck a little more, at the NHL level you don’t get to do that very much… Getting that confidence back of just carrying the puck up the ice and being able to shoot the puck a little bit more down here. And getting back into the physical side of things – I mean I have been, but you need to get back into that and start making some hits. I think these next two games here will for sure help me with that”, Virtanen said.
Virtanen has been a physical asset for the Canucks when he’s played, there’s no denying that. But for a player who’s totaled 66 goals in the last two years in the WHL, there may be some alarm bells in Vancouver that he doesn’t feel confident offensively.
The Canucks knew that Virtanen would bring a physical presence to the team when they chose to keep him at the end of the preseason; Virtanen knows he bring that asset consistently at the NHL level, that’s never been an issue.
What Virtanen needs more than anything at this early point in his career is a chance to spread his wings offensively. He’ll get that chance in the AHL, and he’d be a man among boys in the WHL if he had that opportunity there. But there’s no guarantees he’ll get his chance in the NHL right now.
The next checkpoint for the Canucks is the 39 game-mark for Virtanen, where the team would have to burn a year of his entry-level contract should they keep him on the roster. Virtanen may find his offensive stride in the Canucks lineup by then, but if Virtanen still doesn’t have a permanent spot in the Canucks lineup by then, the team would have no almost no choice but to send him to the WHL to continue to continue to work on his skills.
Will Jake Virtanen Play in World Juniors?
The Hockey Writers has predicted Virtanen to be on Canada’s roster for the World Junior Championship come Dec. 26, and it makes the most sense for the Canucks to allow him to play.
Jake Virtanen was part of the Canadian team that won gold at last year’s tournament, hosted in Toronto and Montreal. As an 18 year-old on the team, he posted one goal, four points and a plus-four rating, helping Team Canada to a 7-0 record.
And with the World Juniors being hosted in Finland, where Virtanen has duel citizenship, he discussed on Thursday the possibility on playing in this year’s tournament.
“Obviously the goal after [Utica] is to go back to Vancouver; I definitely want to stay in Vancouver. But if the team decides to send me there, it’s always an honor to represent your country. [The World Juniors] being in Finland, I have duel citizenship there, so it would be pretty special to me to go over there”, Virtanen said.
While it’s unclear if both Virtanen and McCann will play at the World Juniors, Virtanen is almost a lock to participate based on his situation of being in and out of the lineup with the Canucks. And with experience at the tournament under his belt as well as NHL experience, Virtanen would likely be a candidate to be named captain for Team Canada.
So following his conditioning stint in the AHL, the Canucks will have a lot of questions to answer with Virtanen: World Juniors? Regular lineup spot on the Canucks? And ultimately, continue with his development in Vancouver, and if nothing changes perhaps send him to the WHL and give him a better chance? There’s a lot that could be at stake with these decisions for the 19 year-old at this point in his career.
Your turn, Virtanen, and Vancouver.
Canucks contributor for The Hockey Writers. Maple Ridge, BC native. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or @ColtonnDavies on Twitter.