When the Vancouver Canucks used their sixth overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft to choose the hometown boy Jake Virtanen, fans in Vancouver were rejoicing with excitement – finally the Canucks had a player that pointed to the future of the club. And best of all he was a local boy.
Fast forward a year and half…
After serious shoulder surgery in the 2014 offseason Virtanen was limited to just 50 games in his final WHL campaign. During that time he recorded a respectable 52 points but was just plus-15. When the 2015 season came around fans in Vancouver were dying to see Virtanen on the ice with a Canucks crest donned on his uniform. They got their wish.
Unfortunately for both them and Virtanen, the situation hasn’t turned out as well as they’d hoped for. At least not yet.
Size Doesn’t Mean Everything
Yes – innuendo aside – size doesn’t automatically result in being NHL ready. For Virtanen that has been exactly the case. At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds he’s got the body of an NHLer, there is no doubt about it. But thus far in his young and promising professional career Virtanen has not been able to translate that into success.
The Canucks themselves haven’t been able to muster up much consistency this season and maybe that has impacted Virtanen’s ability to get a feel for the big leagues but after 19 games in a Canucks uniform Virtanen has scored just once, has only four points and is currently sitting at minus-3. For a player of his age (Virtanen is 19-years-old until August of 2016) that kind of struggle can be stunting.
Virtanen is coming off of a four year WHL career where he notched 161 points in 192 career games. At his current rate of scoring in the NHL he’d record just twelve points over roughly 60 games (calculated by looking at the percentage of games he’s played in thus far, expanding that to a full season and applying his current scoring rate to that game total).
Despite the fact that Virtanen has used his size to impose himself on the NHL pretty well in a physical sense, twelve points in 60 games isn’t going to give him much confidence moving forward. It would be safe to assume that Canucks management were looking for a player that made a bit more of an impact at 6th overall.
Now of course it’s still highly likely that Virtanen can develop into an impact player but the Canucks need to tread extremely lightly with how they use him for the remainder of the season.
World Junior Championship: No Question
It wouldn’t have been ridiculous to expect Virtanen back in the Western League this season in which case he would have been a lock for the World Junior team. Once he cracked the Canucks lineup permanently that certainty went out the window a bit. Or so it seemed.
Had Virtanen exceeded expectations, or even met them, he’d probably be way out of the WJC conversation. But because he’s struggled so immensely in the offensive department of his game, and because that is a huge reason why he was drafted 6th overall in 2014, it seems unlikely that the Canucks will withhold him from the WJC where he’ll have the chance to regain some offensive momentum. Especially where he’ll get to play against younger and smaller players.
Virtanen was a member of the 2014-15 WJC Team Canada where he posted four points in seven games. It would be only positive for Virtanen to go to the 2015-16 WJC squad with NHL experience and be able to dominate the tournament but the Canucks are still mulling it over and it’s getting close to Team Canada needing to know whether or not they’ll have Virtanen’s services.
An Alternative Method
For whatever reason – usually referenced as this nagging thing called money – NHL teams don’t like to waste a year of a young player’s entry level contract. In Virtanen’s case, it might be the best option the Canucks have.
It’s clear that Virtanen is a step behind the play in the NHL and his rookie counterparts Jared McCann and Ben Hutton have proven that they are NHL ready players. Each passing day that McCann, Horvat and Hutton exceed expectations is hurting Virtanen’s confidence.
Just a year ago Virtanen was recovering from serious off-season shoulder surgery. Now he’s sitting on the bench of the Vancouver Canucks. Not a great way to rebuild your flow especially when you have to watch your domestic competition (that is McCann and Hutton) proving that they are key contributors on the roster.
Virtanen’s future with the Canucks is certain but the longer he remains hanging in limbo getting limited ice time in the NHL the higher the Canucks are pushing their risk of stunting his growth.
He’s clearly not ready for the NHL and sacrificing one year of his entry level deal in order to see him thrive in the Western League and regain his vital scoring touch is well worth the cost of a year’s salary.
The Canucks have plenty of other options who could come in a play that extra forward role just as effectively as Virtanen is without stunting their prospect’s growth. Ronalds Kenins was a delightful surprise last year potting 12 points in 30 games and Alexandre Grenier looked solid in his NHL debut just a few weeks back.
Patient development is key and in Virtanen’s case the Canucks are turning a blind eye.