2014—Jake Virtanen (selected 6th overall)
Alright, let’s get this one out of the way. I understand people are sick about hearing about Jake Virtanen’s draft position. You can say I am beating a dead horse. The biggest reason why that draft is held above Jake’s head is because this was the first major move Jim Benning made for the future of this franchise.
You can argue about the three trades that were made prior to the draft, but the most important move was the first selection Jim Benning made at the 2014 Entry Draft. This pick was going to be part of the new core going forward. At this point, casual fans were probably not very aware Bo Horvat’s recent season with the London Knights.
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We heard the promises of this team being turned around quickly. The “Boston model” that defeated the Canucks in 2011 would be brought to Vancouver. Well, it started with one the biggest PR moves at the time.
The Canucks have been criticized for years when failing to select players from British Columbia. Most of these players found success on other teams. Jake Virtanen had two qualities going for him that could easily capture the hearts of casual Canucks fans. He was from the Lower Mainland and he had the potential to become a power forward.
Canucks fans have an interesting relationship with power forwards. During the West Coast Express days, Todd Bertuzzi was revered for how he could play with an edge and score a tonne of goals with it. We thought Zack Kassian could fulfill that need, but it wasn’t working out. Jake Virtanen looked poised to fill the mold of the next great power forward for the Canucks.
Letting intangibles cloud judgement
Here is the interview that Jim Benning had on TSN after selecting Virtanen. Pay attention to how he describes Jake. Virtanen is described as a “mean, rugged, powerful skater with a good shot.” Benning also talks about how “Jake will change the culture” for the team.
Notice how the first attributes discussed about Virtanen are his intangibles. His mean attitude and ability to change the look of this team. Those lines are empty in meaning and it’s telling how the words skill or hockey sense never came up; features of top six forwards in this league.
Casual fans blindly stood behind the pick because of the emotional connection to the power forwards of the past. Well, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets were not scared off by the smaller, but much more skilled William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, respectively.
These players were passed on because there were small and light. This league has an unhealthy obsession with low hockey sense players that hit because when the whistles are put away in the playoffs, the heavier team wins. The Anaheim Ducks were one of the heaviest teams in the 2017 playoffs and did not make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. They were rather fortunate to make it the Western Conference Finals.
It didn’t take long to see Ehlers and Nylander developing at a faster and more impressive rate than Virtanen. I don’t think it was his fault. This team rushed Virtanen in his 19-year-old season and I really think that he is a bottom six forward that the Canucks tried to force into the top six group.
Let’s face it. The team would be better with either of those players, but as we are witnessing it, you need more than a few players to consistently win. No one knows this better than the Edmonton Oilers. However, having either Ehlers or Nylander would have made things feel more promising.