Selected by the Vancouver Canucks with the sixth overall pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Calgary Hitmen forward Jake Virtanen is the highest draft pick amongst all current Canucks prospects and debuts as the third highest ranked junior aged player on our list.
If you’ve been following this blog over the past year, you’re probably a bit surprised to see Virtanen check in this high on the list. The CanucksArmy consensus has generally contended that the Canucks erred in drafting Virtanen with the sixth overall pick, something I don’t quite agree with. This might be why I drew this particular assignment (despite being much more familiar with the OHL), or maybe I drew it because I had Virtanen ranked as the organization’s second best prospect, which I’ve been assured is the highest such ranking the Abbotsford, B.C. born power forward received from our team of erstwhile Canucks bloggers.
Here’s my logic: if the Canucks organization folded tomorrow (god forbid), and all of the club’s prospects were suddenly made available to rival NHL clubs in a dispersal draft, which aspiring NHL player would be selected second, immediately following Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray tripping on his way up to the podium to shout “Bo Horvat! Yess!” into the microphone? I don’t think this is close. Quite obviously the 18-year-old who is coming off of a 45 goal age-17 season in the WHL would be the second selection; and well ahead of the undersized 20-year-old winger who just lost a full season to a serious hip-injury; and also ahead of the quick, reliable AHL defenseman who projects to have limited (if any) offensive value at the NHL level.
Read past the jump for more on Virtanen.
One of the youngest players in the 2014 NHL draft class, Virtanen only just turned 18 and is coming off of a pretty remarkable first time draft eligible season with the Hitmen. In terms of his statistical profile, there’s a lot to like about what Virtanen accomplished last season. From the “Scouting Report” on Virtanen that I put together for theScore back in June:
In terms of his goal scoring, Virtanen had a monster season as a first year draft-eligible skater on a juggernaut Calgary Hitmen side. The big forward managed 45 goals, posting the third-best goals per game rate among first time draft-eligible CHL forwards (tied with Sam Bennett, and behind only Robbi Fabbri and Nikolaj Ehlers).
The thing that’s most impressive about Virtanen’s goal-scoring totals, however, is how often he found the back of the net at even strength. Among first time draft-eligible skaters, no CHL player scored as many goals as Virtanen did at five-on-five (32).
There are some necessary contextual qualifiers to Virtanen’s production, as there often are for CHL players. First of all, it’s worth noting that he played mostly with talented older players like Brady Brassert, Adam Tambellini and Greg Chase – two of whom (Chase and Brassert) outscored Virtanen in aggregate and on a points-per-game basis last season. Also the Hitmen were a pretty woeful possession team despite their excellent record, so it seems very possible (even probable) that Virtanen’s goal scoring output was percentage inflated.
Despite those red flags, Virtanen was a top-10 overall pick for a reason: he scored goals as a 17-year-old in major junior at a super elite level and he has an abundance of projectable tools.
“His best attribute is his skating, and he may be the best skater in this draft class,” raved ESPN’s Corey Pronman ahead of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. “Virtanen’s ability to gain the zone is very desirable and he’s a player you want with the puck in transition because of his speed and impressive puck skills. He forechecks well, hustles to get his defensive assignments and plays hard on the penalty kill. Virtanen shot is plus, as he gets it off quick, with torque and accuracy.”
Pronman elaborated on Virtanen’s ability in transition more recently, when he ranked Virtanen as the 26th best NHL prospect.
“His skating is elite,” wrote Pronman, “and he aids his team in a significant manner by how easily he gains the zone with the puck to establish pressure. Virtanen can also unleash a great shot.”
Scouting resource Red Line Report described Virtanen as “Loaded with some of the best physical tools in the draft,” adding that he has a “rifle shot with a lightning release.”
“He’s built like an ox, and goes to the net unlike anyone I’ve seen in a number of years,” opined Calgary Sun beat writer Scott Fisher, who covers the Hitmen for the paper and chatted with us about Virtanen briefly last week. “He’ll often protect the puck, put his shoulder down when coming down the right side, and he just puts defenseman on their backs.”
You can see Virtanen just skate through checks at will, and score a large handful of goals, in the highlight package below. His shot stands out in a major way in the video, as do his quick wrists and the physical element of his game:
So Virtanen is a player with plus skating and shooting ability, NHL-ready size, and a burgeoning reputation as the sort of gritty player capable of punishing opponents physically. You can understand why new Canucks general manager Jim Benning valued Virtanen over a handful of more skilled, but undersized prospects like William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers – even if you disagree with that decision.
Just for fun, here’s some footage of a spirited bout in which Virtanen holds his own while fighting a player (Brady Ramsay) who is three years older than him:
Welcome to the “Boston Model”.
For all of Virtanen’s commendable tools, there is some concern about his anemic assist rate.
“I’ve heard scouts criticizing his lack of vision, that he doesn’t distribute the puck,” Fisher told us over the phone. “But what does that matter if you’re scoring nearly 50 goals?
“He’s not a guy who will dangle around in the offensive-end when they’re set up, or circle the net with the puck,” Fisher continued “He battles in the slot and finds his spots. If he gets the opportunity, he’s looking to shoot.”
Fisher isn’t the only person familiar with Virtanen to downplay concerns about his on-ice vision or playmaking ability recently.
“He won’t be a team’s primary puck carrier or scoring-chance creator,” admitted Pronman while filling out his 100 player draft board with notes, “but there’s budding upside with Virtanen on that front if he continues to develop well.”
Whether Virtanen continues to develop well is anyone’s guess, what we know for sure is that he won’t have the opportunity to compete in the Penticton Young Stars Tournament or at Canucks training camp this fall. The top-prospect is still rehabbing from pre-draft shoulder surgery, and while he’s ahead of schedule, he’s implied that he won’t return to the ice until after NHL training camps have broken.
He still could contend for a slot on Canada’s World Junior Championship roster though, and the expectations remain high for his draft plus-one season.
“Depending on when he makes it back from shoulder surgery, I’d think the baseline is 50 goals for him next season,” opined Fisher.
To accomplish that Virtanen will have to do more with less in Calgary, while also defying the fickle gods of statistical regression. He’s a top-10 pick though, with seemingly all of the tools, so the Canucks and Benning are betting that he’s up to the task (even if the other CanucksArmy writers aren’t).