It was announced last Monday that the Edmonton Oilers had signed forward Jake Virtanen to a professional tryout (PTO) contract, which caused a stir among the Oilers’ fanbase. The former Vancouver Canuck was recently found not guilty of a sexual assault charge in a British Columbia Supreme Court.
The signing left many with a feeling of “not this again”, due to the Oilers’ tendency to bring in reclamation projects with problematic pasts. As The Athletic’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman insisted, the signing makes general manager (GM) Ken Holland look insensitive (from ‘Oilers Decision to Sign Jake Virtanen Deserves Criticism It’s Getting,’ The Athletic, 9/19/22).
Virtanen was a highly touted prospect, drafted sixth overall by the Canucks in the 2014 NHL Draft. He was projected to be an in-your-face power forward, yet has not lived up to expectations in his six NHL seasons. During the 2020-21 campaign, he was placed on indefinite leave after reports indicated an alleged sexual assault took place in 2017. In addition, last season he had an underwhelming campaign in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) as a member of Spartak Moscow, tallying 16 points in 36 games.
Consequently, this leaves many wondering why GM Holland even brought him into the fold. In consideration of that, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of bringing Virtanen to training camp on a PTO.
The Disadvantages of Virtanen’s PTO Signing
Let’s start with the cons. The Oilers finished last season on a high note, despite losing to the Colorado Avalanche in four games in the Western Conference Final. They finished in the final four, and many hockey pundits feel this is Edmonton’s first legitimate season in the Connor McDavid era that they could win it all. Moreover, the Oilers’ prospects recently had a good outing in Penticton, winning all three games in the Young Stars tournament.
There’s a lot to be excited about in Oil Country. Yet, instead of Dylan Holloway’s dominant performance in Penticton being a highlight or the Oilers’ increased chances of adding a sixth Cup this season as the main topic of conversation, the headline leading the way into training camp is the controversial signing of Virtanen to a PTO. Holland held a media availability last Wednesday morning and less than five minutes in, he was asked about the Virtanen situation and it was the talking point with media members for the next few minutes. He summarized:
“I made a decision for a pro tryout, and I think over the next two weeks, first off, I’m going to evaluate from a hockey perspective, that he’s someone that we’d have interest signing to a contract. And number two, if we do decide to go in that direction, then I have to weigh the other part, obviously— I’m not even sure what the word is — what he did — and do I want to go in that direction.”Ken Holland
Virtanen was found not guilty of allegations on July 26, yet he still faces a civil suit and the matter is not completely behind him. As a result, the team is facing criticism and their integrity is also in question. Morals and ethics aside, it seems Holland has brought unnecessary negative attention to the team by bringing him to training camp.
Not only that, but Virtanen’s PTO signing could be a distraction for the players. Holland was also asked at the media availability if the leadership group and the guys in the dressing room would be involved in the decision-making process. He responded they and others would be involved, but as training camp starts, the leaders of the team — McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — will also likely have to field questions from the media about their thoughts about the situation. Again, in a pivotal season where the Oilers are considered Stanley Cup contenders, this negative attention, and potential negative energy in the locker room, seems unnecessary.
Another downside is what The Hockey Writers’ Jim Parsons recently alluded to. He summarized that Virtanen’s PTO may force Oilers management to make a decision on Jesse Puljujarvi. He mentioned that if the former Canuck plays well and makes the team that the writing might be on the wall for the Oilers’ fan favourite, Puljujarvi. If that happens, not only would they risk trading away a player with greater potential, but there will certainly be an uproar within the fanbase as well.
The Advantages of Virtanen’s PTO Signing
An advantage to having Virtanen at training camp is to fulfill the minimum number of veteran players in preseason games and he qualifies on the fact that he’s played more than the minimum of 100 NHL games. Under Section 15.4, each team has to compile a list of veterans and dress eight for every game. More or less, his main purpose at camp is to be a warm body and give players like McDavid and Draisaitl — who are usually among the leaders in ice time in the regular season — a chance to rest before the 2022-23 campaign officially begins.
Another pro to Virtanen’s PTO signing is that it creates competition at training camp. Deep down, it will take a superb performance by the former Canuck to earn an NHL contract, but the competition to earn a job can be a healthy thing. He’ll likely be fighting for a spot on the bottom six and his presence says to players that are on the cusp that their spots aren’t guaranteed. Holland spoke of the competitiveness at training camp, saying, “We want to be a good team, it’s competition. It’s internal competition and you have to hang onto your job. The way we’re going to get better and deeper is if people are pushing and they have to hang onto their jobs.”
Another advantage is the slight chance that Virtanen actually earns an NHL contract. If that happens, that means he impressed the coaching staff in some shape or form. The Oilers would have to move salary to make that happen (hopefully not at the expense of Puljujarvi), but the things that work in his favour heading into preseason are his size and the fact that he scored a career-high 18 goals back in the 2019-20 season. In the small chance he regains that form, they could potentially be adding 10-15 goals this season on a league minimum salary.
With that in mind, the likelihood that Virtanen becomes the effective power forward he was once projected to be at 26 years old is minimal. And in the hypothetical situation that he earns a contract and adds 10-plus goals to the team this season, at the end of the day, the Oilers will have to face whether it was worth all the negative attention, criticism and questioning of their organization’s integrity.
He’s the first ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – He’s been featured on CBC Radio providing hockey analysis for the Edmonton Oilers – He’s a freelance writer and Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.