Vancouver Canucks: Why Jake Virtanen Should Stay in Vancouver

Oct 15, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen (18) skates against Calgary Flames forward Alex Chiasson (39) during the first period at Rogers Arena. The Vancouver Canucks won 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 15, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen (18) skates against Calgary Flames forward Alex Chiasson (39) during the first period at Rogers Arena. The Vancouver Canucks won 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports /
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Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen is not playing good hockey. But he is not getting a chance either.

What started out as minor offseason talk has turned into a great debate: what should the Vancouver Canucks do with Jake Virtanen?

The 20-year-old forward is in his second NHL season but is still struggling to make a name for himself. Head coach Willie Desjardins keeps playing him on the fourth line — or not at all — and fans keep saying he shouldn’t be in the NHL.

Today, The Canuck Way’s Ben Dooley argued it was time for the Canucks to reassign Virtanen to the AHL Utica Comets. After reading through Twitter today, it seemed like most of Canucks Nation agrees.

It sounds easy. Send him to Utica where he’ll thrive into a confident scorer. Call him back up to the NHL after 30 games, 20 goals and 35 points in Utica. But like most things, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The two things I believe Virtanen is struggling the most with are his playing time and line mates. Last season, Virtanen appeared in just 55 games, which was the Canucks’ way of “bringing him along slowly.” When he did play, it was often with line mates like Adam Cracknell, Brandon Prust, Chris Higgins or Linden Vey — often for fewer than 10 minutes per night.

This year, Virtanen has played in five of seven games. Desjardins decided it was good to scratch him twice, and he might still be in the press box if it wasn’t for injuries to Alex Burrows and Derek Dorsett. In his five games, Virtanen averaged 9:56 of ice time.

That would get better in the AHL, right?

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Sure, Virtanen could play on the first line and the power play, perhaps even the penalty kill. He could get 25 minutes of ice time per night in a true scoring role.

But again, it isn’t that easy.

The Comets are currently last in the AHL’s North Division with only one win out of four games. Their top scorer is Michael Chaput with a goal and five assists, followed by Jordan Subban and Alex Grenier. Other top forwards include Mike Zalewski and Jayson Megna, who is currently on an NHL assignment in Vancouver.

Like the Canucks, the Comets lack scorers. Chaput, Grenier, Zalewski and Megna would be potential line mates for Virtanen in Utica. All four have nothing more than fourth-line NHL potential, and all four would be in grinding roles in the NHL.

None of them are perfect partners to get Virtanen’s scoring going.

What Satir Shah mentions is what I have been saying for a long time: Virtanen needs to be put in a situation to succeed in Vancouver before considering an AHL demotion.

Virtanen has good chemistry with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi — why can’t he stay on that line for more than two games? Even if he has only one assist after 10 games on that line, keep him there for a little longer if it looks like it could work out eventually.

Or, let him play with Markus Granlund and Brandon Sutter. Or maybe try him out with the Sedins for 10 games — whatever. Just do something that gets him 15 minutes or more per game.

Show Virtanen you want him in the NHL, show him you need him, and show him you want him in a scoring role.

Virtanen losing confidence and motivation is no surprise. He was drafted as a scorer and never gets a real chance to be one. Why does Desjardins think playing him on the fourth line or having him sit in the press box would motivate him?

Likewise, would an AHL assignment motivate him? “Look, after 60 games in this league, I have decided you suck and I don’t want you here anymore. Score 50 goals in Utica and we’ll call you up. Good luck, bye.”

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Give him a real chance in the NHL. Then make a decision. But please stop moving him in and out of the lineup, giving him new line mates every night and playing him for under 10 minutes.

That just doesn’t help.