The Vancouver Canucks are in the midst of a youth movement. So, let’s take a look at the club’s top youngsters!
If the Vancouver Canucks want to make their ‘rebuild on the fly’ work, they need a strong foundation of young roster players. We all know the Bo Horvats and Ben Huttons of the team, but what’s after that? How are things for the AHL Utica Comets and what can we expect from the Canucks’ next crop of youngsters?
To answer those questions, our staff ranked all signed Vancouver Canucks players under the age of 25. After compiling a list of the top 10 Canucks prospects recently, this is all about who can help today. And guess what, the Canucks only have a total of 26 players under 25 signed and playing in North America right now.
Sophomore winger Jake Virtanen is the first player who cracked the top five of our list.
#5 – Jake Virtanen
Position: Left Wing
Team: Vancouver Canucks (NHL)
NHL Experience: 55 Games
How He Got Here
Jake Virtanen took the fast track to stardom. Selected first overall in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, he made his WHL debut as a 15-year-old. In his first nine games with the Calgary Hitmen, he recorded three goals and an assist, making an immediate impact.
What followed was a terrific rookie season with 16 goals and 34 points in 62 games as a 16-year-old. Virtanen never slowed down from there, scoring at a point-per-game pace for the next two seasons. In addition, he represented Canada at the under-17, under-18 and under-20 World Championships.
Because of that, Virtanen was considered one of the top prospects at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The Vancouver Canucks owned the sixth-overall pick that year and had a tough choice to make between players like Virtanen, William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers. They took Virtanen and didn’t look back, but not every Canucks fan was happy about the choice.
Where He Is Today
Virtanen didn’t waste any time getting to the major junior level and he made the NHL just as quickly. After just one additional year in junior, Virtanen and fellow 2014 draft pick Jared McCann made the Canucks out of training camp in 2015. Despite that, Canucks management wanted to take it slow with the two, and decided to rotate them in and out of the lineup while having them play bottom-line minutes.
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While McCann did get some time higher in the lineup, especially on the top line with Henrik Sedin injured, Virtanen actually spent the entire season on the fourth line. Playing with line mates like Derek Dorsett, Brandon Prust and Adam Cracknell, Virtanen really wasn’t put in a good position to succeed as a scorer. He was one of the best defensive players on the team, but he only recorded seven goals and 13 points in 55 games.
Those mediocre offensive numbers once again led to scouts and fans questioning his offensive ability. Today, Virtanen is a terrific defensive player who will most certainly have a long NHL career. However, he is only a terrific defensive player at this point, not the power forward with elite scoring ability that he was supposed to be.
Where He’s Headed
This is the big question. Where is Jake Virtanen headed? Can he be a scorer at the NHL level?
Virtanen is still young and has tons of time to develop. But yet, the upcoming season will be crucial for his development. Canucks management will have to decide whether they want to keep him in the NHL or send him down to the AHL Utica Comets.
In Vancouver, there is a risk that he will settle in as a full-time grinder. In Utica, on the other hand, he could build up some confidence and develop into a top-six scorer. However, being sent down to Utica could also hurt his confidence, so there is no easy way to go about this.
If Anton Rodin is ready for the NHL or the Canucks sign another middle-six winger, Virtanen could spend the entire 2016-17 season on a line with Sven Baertschi and Bo Horvat. There, he could also recover his scoring ability and grow more confident. If that worked out, it would obviously be a much better scenario than sending him to the AHL.
Unfortunately, there is no way to find out prior to the season. The Canucks will have to go into training camp with an objective look at the situation and simply decide by who performs how well. If Virtanen earns his spot, great. If he doesn’t, there is no point in wasting him on the fourth line.