Canucks: Jake Virtanen is on the verge of validation

VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 06: Vancouver Canucks Right wing Jake Virtanen (18) and Left wing Antoine Roussel (26) celebrate after a goal on Nashville Predators Goalie Pekka Rinne (35) during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on December 6, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - DECEMBER 06: Vancouver Canucks Right wing Jake Virtanen (18) and Left wing Antoine Roussel (26) celebrate after a goal on Nashville Predators Goalie Pekka Rinne (35) during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on December 6, 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Since the beginning of time, or at least since the Vancouver Canucks drafted Jake Virtanen in 2014, the name of their sixth-overall pick has been dragged through the mud.

Also in that time, the Vancouver Canucks coaching staff has been criticized variously for its inability to properly develop young prospects.

This writer is here to challenge the endless diatribe that is forever cutting down Jake Virtanen for his supposedly insufferable inconsistency, and to say bollocks. Jake “can’t get no respect, no respect at all.”

If a team wants to develop a premier power forward then it needs to support him with meaningful opportunities and encouragement. You can’t expect a kid to play confidently and to reach his full potential when his coach is bent on holding him back.

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Before a preseason puck had ever dropped, head coach Travis Green had shown his cards for how he intended to play Virtanen this season. Green hung his young player out to dry in the whipping winds of the media when he spoke publicly of Jake failing to meet summertime training targets.

Case in point, a couple of days later in the very first preseason game of 2019, Virtanen put the Canucks’ AHL-laden lineup on his back and powered them past a steaming pile of Calgary Flames vets — by of course using his elite speed off the rush, where he scored two unassisted and unanswered goals, including the overtime winner. Yet the very next game, incredibly, Green wasted any momentum for building up his confidence by instead limiting Virtanen’s ice time to a measly 12 minutes and 17 seconds. Please.

This discussion on the dangers of coach ego is a continuation from the start of the season when Green predictably refused to play Hughes on the top unit, stunting his team’s potency and sacrificing points that he couldn’t afford to lose. This writer went on at length about the perils of coach ego left unchecked wreaking havoc on player development and team success. If we’re talking about any inconsistency regarding Virtanen, that discussion also needs to address inconsistency stemming from coaching decisions.

When a coach is bent on an idea, sometimes no amount of goals will elevate a player’s status. Just ask Reid Boucher, who leads the entire AHL with 17 goals in just 19 games. That poor fella is lightyears from ever getting a call up from Green’s coaching staff. If he hasn’t earned it then no one has.

Negative heat from the coach will catch a lot of wind in a town like ours. If Green ever decides to support and build up Virtanen after playing well rather than cut him down, and when the team’s depth is in place to enable scoring throughout the lineup (welcome back Antoine Roussel), Jake will break out and surprise the lot of you — as he did on Saturday with two assists in just 12:20 of ice time.

Virtanen’s newest linemate is suddenly on pace for 78 more goals this season, and their line is brimming with chemistry. Jake is bound to get more offensive opportunities playing with nouveau-goal scorer Roussel, the left-handed winger who recently returned from knee surgery to score three goals in his first two games of the season.

Of course, Roussel won’t be able to hold this pace for long, as he’s not a bonafide NHL goal scorer, but he is the kind of player who significantly changes a team’s culture for the better, much like former fan favourite Alex Burrows. When a guy like that fortuitously lands on a line he elevates everyone’s battle level.

Not to mention, offensive-minded centre Adam Gaudette is centering their line and meshing well with some offence of his own, including a beautiful feed on Roussel’s first goal of the season.

With those three together and firing on all cylinders, Virtanen has an opportunity to earn extra ice time in the second half of the season. There’s enough creativity, skill, grit and speed on that third line to finally put Virtanen in a position to surprise his doubters. All he needs is a little momentum.

As of recently, the third line is providing the secondary scoring that Benning originally spoke of before training camp, when he told reporters of his plan to ice, not a top-six, but a top-nine with the ability to play at both ends of the rink.

A top-nine like that would always be predicated on the likes of Virtanen taking big steps forward in his development, which has seemed rather slow under the tutelage of coach Green. With a little patience, there still might be a chance to see Jake through GM Jim Benning’s rose-coloured glasses. The player percolating underneath looks like he’s on the verge of proving himself to be a precious piece of the puzzle.

Virtanen’s development arc undoubtedly sends older fans back on a quantum leap in time to the turn of the millennium, 1999, when a 23-year-old Todd Bertuzzi had yet to assume his position at the top of the food chain.

The mood was becoming impatient around Bertuzzi, who teased of incredible skills amidst the insufferable inconsistency of his youth. The New York Islanders had given up on then 22-year-old Bertuzzi and sent him across the continent in a package deal in the infamous trade arranged by the short-tenured Canucks coach and GM of the day, Mike Keenan, who in turn exiled beloved star centre Trevor Linden.

It wasn’t until Bertuzzi was 24-years-old when he blossomed into a legitimate top-six, 50-plus-point player for the Canucks. Still, the star who became the legend wasn’t born until a couple of years later. At age 26, the 230 lbs, 6’3″ Bertuzzi appeared out of nowhere as the apex predator of the NHL, at first scoring 85 points and then 97 the next year, which was enough for top 3 and top 5 in the NHL respectively. The rest, as they say, is history.

Back to the present, where a budding Jake Virtanen has scored six points in his last five games and tied J.T. Miller for the Canucks lead with seven goals during five-on-five play this season. Please, re-read that last sentence a second time to let it sink in. There are great reasons to believe in Jake right now.

Virtanen is +5 with more takeaways than giveaways. He has the highest five-on-five individual points percentage on the team (88.24 IPP). He’s on pace to score 19 goals and 41 points. It’s a testament to his dominance in how he was able to accomplish this while being limited to just 12 minutes of ice time per game, less than virtually all of his teammates.

The author won’t fault his readers for thinking a player with this level of offence should be worthy of averaging more than the blink of an eye on the power play. Obviously, Green disagrees with this logic. This season Jake is averaging just six seconds on the power play each game, 18th among Canucks skaters, which is basically dead last as there are only 18 skaters in an NHL lineup.

Where could Virtanen be if the coach actually supported his confidence by rewarding success rather than dousing it? Verging on Vertuzzi, daresay.