Just as critics began to question Jake Virtanen’s preparedness for the National Hockey League the Vancouver Canucks made their best developmental choice with Virtanen yet: letting him skate in the World Junior Championship.
Virtanen was expected to make a splash this year in Vancouver and make an immediate impact on the roster. Instead Virtanen struggled offensively, endured a few nagging injuries and showed some frustration in his game. Through 19 games Virtanen has just one goal and three assists for the Canucks. After his second injury of the season left him out of the lineup for four games the Canucks management team decided to assign Virtanen to a conditioning stint with their AHL affiliate Utica.
He wasn’t able to find the net in his two game AHL stint but he did get to play a larger role and log some serious minutes. That’s something that just hasn’t been available to him at the NHL level.
It’s been a mystery for some time whether or not the Canucks would allow Jared McCann or Virtanen to miss time with the big club in order to forego a chance at another WJC title. The mystery has been solved.
Virtanen Focused on Regaining Confidence at World Junior Championship
In the Western Hockey League Virtanen was a forced to be reckoned with. He was at least a point per game meanwhile he was a physical enigma in the top-six for the Calgary Hitmen. After a 52-point (in 51 games) comeback campaign for Calgary last year it seemed likely that Virtanen would play for the Canucks in 2015-16. To what extent he would contribute was a bit of an unknown.
Without a doubt there was some question in the minds of analysts as to whether or not Virtanen was a) healthy enough from his shoulder surgery to take NHL contact or b) had enough time to regain his mojo after missing an entire summer of training and a third of the 2014-15 WHL season. Those fears were realized when Virtanen failed to score in his first eight games in the NHL. It’s not as if he wasn’t getting an adequate amount of ice time. In his sixth through ninth NHL games Virtanen averaged just about 10:10 of ice. After those games he would break eleven minutes five more times without scoring a goal.
It just seemed as if Virtanen wasn’t feeling confident enough in his own game. That’s no way to develop a prized prospect.
The World Junior Championship will give him an outlet to rehab his nagging hip injury against smaller competition, a chance at producing consistent and significant offense and one would imagine a considerable amount of ice time.
The great thing about the World Junior Championship is the intensity of the stage that it’s held on. Although nothing compares to stepping on NHL ice, the WJC could give Virtanen five or six games of high stakes/high intensity play where he’ll be one of the premier players on the ice. That could be all it takes to light a fire under his bum.
But what if it isn’t the only thing he needs?
Cut Losses and Send Virtanen Back to Calgary
Usually a nineteen year old first round pick is one of two things: Immediately ready to make an impact in the NHL or in need of another dominant year in the WHL. Every once in a blue moon there is a player that comes along that makes the AHL’s age restrictions seem a bit counteractive.
It’s not that Virtanen hasn’t shown NHL skill it’s just he hasn’t been able to implement it enough to produce offense, which he is very use to doing. But he has been a physical monster on the ice. He’s recorded 53 hits in just nineteen games. In an 82-game season Virtanen would land near 230 hits.
So it seems that Virtanen has found himself in this awkward developmental grey area where his physicality is NHL elite but his ability to utilize his skill has yet to fill out. That makes it hard to place him. Will he be better suited being the king of the WHL or grinding his way through an arguably frustrating NHL rookie season?
There’s no science to prove either way (although some statistics on the matter could surely be produced) but it’s hard to imagine Virtanen benefiting from struggling through an NHL season where the Canucks have so many loose ends. The team is currently carrying two other natural rookies in Ben Hutton and McCann and with so many different call-ups the team isn’t showing much faith in Virtanen’s NHL readiness.
Should Virtanen struggle during the WJC he will surely end up in Calgary for the remainder of the season. Unfortunately the Canucks would forfeit a year of Virtanen’s entry-level contract which has become almost taboo for NHL teams to do. In the case of Virtanen it doesn’t seem worth it to risk his long term development for the safety of $1 million.
Demotion for the Best
The Calgary Hitmen are at the top of the WHL standings and aren’t looking like a team nearing a falter. For Virtanen to play in the WHL would surely have its downsides. He is above the level offered in the Western League but being able to regain his scoring touch and play 20+ minutes per game on route to what could be a Memorial Cup run might be huge for Virtanen’s career and for his chance at being an essential part of the 2016-17 Canucks campaign.
The bottom line is that is just doesn’t make sense to have Virtanen sitting on the bench in the NHL. His role was never meant to be a depth position. Virtanen was drafted sixth overall for a reason – to be a new pillar of the Canucks’ future – and the team should be weary of his development in order to achieve that.