Vancouver Canucks: Let’s talk about Jake Virtanen’s season and the future

VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 05: Vancouver Canucks Right Wing Jake Virtanen (18) checks Arizona Coyotes Winger Clayton Keller (9) during the third period in a NHL hockey game on April 05, 2018, at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC. Canucks won 4-3 in Overtime. (Photo by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 05: Vancouver Canucks Right Wing Jake Virtanen (18) checks Arizona Coyotes Winger Clayton Keller (9) during the third period in a NHL hockey game on April 05, 2018, at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC. Canucks won 4-3 in Overtime. (Photo by Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

It’s no secret how Jake Virtanen divides Canucks fans. Regardless of how you feel, the local kid had a good season. This is what I think it means for the future.

As they say, time does fly. It’s hard to believe that this June will mark four years since Jim Benning and the Vancouver Canucks drafted Jake Virtanen in Philadelphia. Don’t worry. I am well aware there is a vocal contingent of our readers who don’t like it when William Nylander and NIkolaj Ehlers are brought up.

That’s not what this is about. Last year gave Canucks fans a legitimate cause for concern. His 19 points in 65 games created a very real worry about Virtanen. The beginning of this season had us hoping he could salvage an NHL career, throwing draft expectations out the window.

Nobody and I mean nobody wanted to see Virtanen fail. We did not want to see him turn into Jack Skille. But when he showed that poorly in the AHL, you started to ask questions. Production is not everything, but players that stick in the NHL have to produce at the lower levels.

We remember players like Linden Vey and Emerson Etem as poor players with the Canucks, but they could produce well in the minors. Fortunately for Virtanen, he dispelled those fears with his most recent season.

Finishing the year with 10 goals and 10 assists, Virtanen had flashes of what people expect all the time. He was fast, physical and made a few Canucks games this season watchable, all on his own. With the help of Travis Green, he gave Jake the reset that he needed.

It’s all about perspective

So, as exciting as it was to watch Virtanen this season, there are a few facts you need to know. First, I want to establish that I believe Jake Virtanen had a good season overall. Although, the thing that stood out to me the most was not his offensive production (which we will get to), but his defensive game.

Thanks to the simplified system implemented by Green, Virtanen wasn’t lost out there. His incredibly low hockey sense is the biggest weakness that will prevent him from becoming a top six forward, so Green created a system that Jake can thrive in.

Furthermore, this season showed the Canucks’ system was dependent on speed and effort. Virtanen has the former in spades, being the fastest skater on the team. Now that he is shape from last year’s grueling year in Utica, he doesn’t burn out quickly anymore during games.

Like I said, perspective is important. Offensively, it was nice to see Jake finish the year with 10 goals. He has 17 in 140 career games. Those 10 came in 75 games. Virtanen can score a nice goal every now and then, but he’s streaky. People love to rave about his two goals in the final six games of the season. What about the nine games before that? Zero. Two in the last fifteen doesn’t sound quite so nice.

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Deployment matters

Virtanen played 209 even strength minutes with Henrik Sedin and 190 minutes with Daniel Sedin. He struggled with them. I know this city is hungry for a first line power forward, but we aren’t getting that from Virtanen.

He spent the next most time with Nic Dowd and Brendan Gaunce (164 minutes with each). Additionally, Virtanen played at least 100 minutes at even strength with Bo Horvat, Sam Gagner and Markus Granlund.

The reason Jake kept moving around was due to injuries and with the exception of the Sedins and Horvat, poor linemates. Chemistry was hard to establish, but the Gaunce-Dowd-Virtanen line was fine defensively.

You can swap out Dowd for a better centre, but the point is, Virtanen does well in a checking role. He has the speed and can hound the puck carriers in his own end. The lack of hockey sense bites him every now and then, but Green depends on Virtanen for defence first. Scoring goals is an added bonus.

The future

Based on how Jake Virtanen is trending, it looks like he will be part of the Vancouver Canucks for a long time. However, he is trending closer to becoming a good third line winger instead of the first line power forward many of you want to see.

It’s not the lack of production holding him back. That’s just the result of a player that lacks hockey sense. Yes, Eric Lindros wasn’t the smartest of players, but if you’re comparing Virtanen to Lindros, it’s time to come back down to Earth.

Virtanen’s most ardent supporters always look to Todd Bertuzzi and Shane Doan since they were late bloomers. What did each of those players do at age 21? Bertuzzi had 10 goals and 23 points in 64 games. Sounds similar, right? He also had 10 points in 13 games in the IHL (before it was absorbed by the AHL).

Bertuzzi is the exception, not the rule. And I’m telling you now, Virtanen’s skill level and hockey sense are not even close to where Bertuzzi was at the time. Furthermore, Bertuzzi got better with each year he was in junior whereas Virtanen stagnated and was rushed to the NHL.

Shane Doan is another exception that people chase. His five goals in 33 games are equivalent to 11 goals over the same number of games played by Virtanen this season. However, Doan had 42 points in 39 games in the AHL.

You can pick and chose your facts to support arguments and only looking at NHL stats would give you this deluded similarity. In reality, Jake does not have the production at the lower levels to justify an out-of-nowhere spike in offence.

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For me, it’s not a bad thing if Jake becomes a player who averages 15 goals and 15 assists every season. I just don’t think you’re being realistic when you guarantee 30-goal seasons down the line. How about we wait for him to hit 30 career goals first? I’m not saying give up on the kid, but keep those expectations in the middle. Otherwise, you’re just lying to yourself.