This is an in-depth look at Jake Virtanen and the ups and down of his Vancouver Canucks career to this point. I will look at the expectations of Virtanen; those he has lived up to and those he hasn’t.
“With our first selection, we select from the WHL Calgary Hitmen, Jake Virtanen.”
-General manager Jim Benning
Those were the words that echoed throughout the ears of Vancouver Canuck fans, cheering that the team had found the toughness they were looking for, after missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.
The expectations of Jake Virtanen have been in flux since he arrived, making the team in his first-year pro, to being demoted just one season later. He has had a rocky road with the team thus far, and regardless of how long it takes power forwards to develop, he has not justified going sixth overall in 2014. Now I will delve into what Virtanen actually is to the Canucks, and how he should be used going forward.
What they thought they had
The buzz around Virtanen was linked to that of a previous Canuck legend Todd Bertuzzi. Like many fans, I was very excited to have what seemed to be a dynamic, physical, scoring, power forward on this team.
He was supposed to dominate the league like he had when he scored 45 goals in his draft year. The Canucks missed that mean player that they had in Kevin Bieksa, when opposing players would take liberties at the team’s top stars.
Virtanen went through guys when he played in the WHL. He would go through you to get the puck, to score, or to finish his checks — it was only assumed that he would do the same thing when he grew into an adult body.
The kid had lofty expectation on him, and it was much deserved after being such a high selection. Being a hometown boy, that added more pressure. We all know that Virtanen has not become what we thought he would, so let’s look at what Virtanen has turned out to be — and what he hasn’t.
What they have
Virtanen looks poised to score 20 goals next season if he can play close to a full season. But he’s approaching his fifth season with the team, and he simply hasn’t produced enough.
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If we were to disregard his draft position — and we should because it’s a sunk cost and it can’t be changed now — we’re looking at a player that has the ability to contribute 20 goals. That’s what the Canucks need.
Virtanen has a wicked shot. You’ve seen him beat goalies from bad angles, distance, and just blast pucks in general. If he can get his shots off more frequently, he would be a lot more of a handful than he already is.
I can’t recall the last time Canucks nation united on a tradition more than the #ShotgunJake movement.
If the team chooses to keep him until they next make the postseason, not only will the tradition erupt, but Virtanen will be an integral part of a playoff run with his size and speed.
Look at what Zack Kassian did with the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs two years ago. He was a force against the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, throwing his weight around and scoring three goals in the postseason.
What they don’t have
Virtanen looked poised to live up to the hype in his first year, tallying seven goals and six assists in 55 games, then the floor fell out. He had a solid first season, but showed us the following year that his development was stunted. Something wasn’t right with him. Virtanen only played 10 games the next year, and he spent most of the season with the AHL’s Utica Comets.
The demotion was deserved, but it really should have happened sooner. I would have liked to see Virtanen grow and learn to dominate adults in the AHL before being tasked with taking on the top talents in the NHL. You can see the improvement in his post-AHL days, in all of the advanced offensive categories. But it’s still not up to the standard that he set in his rookie campaign.
You would expect a sixth overall pick to be an integral part of your core moving forward, but the fact that he is not an untouchable on this team shows that his development isn’t where the team or fans want it to be. There are times when Virtanen is a force on the ice, but the problem is that he’s not consistent. I can’t tell what the cause of this is, if it’s just him struggling to maintain the intensity that his game requires, or a lack of drive.
Virtanen has all the tools, and if he steps into his own, he’s going to be a very important piece for this team down the road. Different players develop at different times. If the team sells low on him, and he excels somewhere else, fans won’t be the least bit satisfied.
This next season is integral for Jake, not only is it time for him to make a mark on this roster by solidifying a spot, but he is playing for a contract in 2020-21. If he can’t take this next big step, he might be a perennial bridge contract player. Time to find out if this Virtanen is loaded or not.