Ever since Jake Virtanen was drafted sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, he has been put under the microscope. Being a hometown boy from nearby Abbotsford, British Columbia put some undue pressure on him as well. Add in some good old fashioned Todd Bertuzzi comparisons and World Junior Championships criticism and you have a player that has had to climb a huge mountain to get to where he is today.
Everything from Virtanen’s work ethic and hockey IQ to his conditioning have come under scrutiny at some point in his career. Some of it has been warranted, as he has not made it easy on himself sometimes. Despite all this, he has stepped up to the plate this season and hit one out of the park. A lack of consistency, something that has plagued him throughout his career, also looks to be a thing of the past.
Virtanen is now starting to look like the player that dominated the 2013-14 season in the Western Hockey League when he scored 45 goals and 71 points with the Calgary Hitmen. He has turned a corner and is becoming a legitimate offensive threat in the NHL. How far can he go? It should be a hell of a ride to find out and without a doubt, a lot of beer will be consumed along the way.
Virtanen Turning Back the Clock
When Virtanen was playing for the Hitmen in his draft year, he was a beast offensively using his speed, physicality and elite shot to dominate opponents. When he was drafted by the Canucks and thrust into the NHL at the tender age of 19, it looked like he was on the right track. Then came the 2016 World Junior Championships, and the penalties that ended up costing Team Canada the tournament.
Virtanen was unfairly blamed for the loss by media and Canadians alike even though it was the team’s poor performance that cost them the game. Ever since then, he has played an inconsistent brand of hockey which I believe stemmed from that tournament. He was never the same, that is until now.
When you watch Virtanen this season, you see a confident player that has finally found a toolbox to put his tools in. His speed has been evident since he entered the NHL, but somehow he looks more dangerous this season when he uses it. The hockey IQ that has been missing from his game also looks to have been discovered. Basically he has emerged, like a caterpillar that has transformed into a beautiful butterfly.
The Roussel Effect
Antoine Roussel has done a lot of things for the Canucks since returning to the lineup. To go along with his four goals in eight games, he has ignited Virtanen’s gritty and agitating side as well. Since the rooster has returned to the pen, he has looked more engaged and his work ethic has increased tenfold. When you see a guy go out there and work his butt off every shift, it tends to wear off on you.
Virtanen has started to become an impact player and a huge part of the secondary scoring with eight points in his last ten games. Roussel returned eight games ago, and seven of those eight points have come during that time. Coincidence? I think not.
Canucks’ Revamped Third Line
Along with Roussel, Virtanen has teamed up with a new pivot in Adam Gaudette. In the same eight games, he has five points and has developed chemistry with the man they call “Big Tuna”.
The Canucks haven’t been able to boast a consistent third line that could score since Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, and Jannik Hansen were a thing back in the glory days. With Virtanen and Gaudette emerging as consistent threats on offence and Roussel providing the grit and tenacity for the unit, it could turn into a very effective long-term solution for the team.
When the Canucks finally make the playoffs, this line could also be the x-factor in a close series when Pettersson, Boeser, and Horvat are inevitably shut down. I for one am excited to see where this line can go in the future. If the present is any indication, it will be a blast to watch.
Virtanen’s Future is Bright
Now that Virtanen appears to have turned a corner in his development, the future is indeed bright for the former sixth overall pick. If he continues to progress he could become the power forward everyone expected him to be when he was drafted. He is on pace for his first 20 goal season and is only seven points away from shattering his career-high of 25 points set last season. He will be doing it in half the amount of games as well.
If Virtanen’s current pace continues, he will nearly double his output from last season. It definitely looks like he has finally figured it out and is becoming the NHL player he was always meant to be. If he stays consistent, he will silence all his critics and prove to everyone that hard work and perseverance pay off. They say good things come to those who wait, and boy will it be exciting to see how good it will actually get.