Prospect Profile #3: Jake Virtanen

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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).

OTHER PROFILES IN THIS SERIES:

  • ubermiguel

    I fully expect him to develop into a 2nd line winger. I would love to see a line of Kassian/Horvat/Virtanen, which would be an extremely physically imposing line. Kassian showed this year he has great ice vision and is probably a better passer than gunner, you would have a solid passing center, who is the defensive presence on the line and then a big gunner to finish off the goals and perhaps the opponents. Three years from now, I think they maybe a line, matching with an older line of the Sedins with Jensen and Shinkaruk/Bonino/Vey as your third line. Of course McCann may upset one of these trios as might Gaunce.

  • RandomScrub

    I had no problem with this pick. He has all of the tools you covet and he can score. We need finishers and this guy can do it. He was one of the youngest players in the draft so one would hope he continues to develop. I think he has a long way to go before the NHL – maybe see him in two years if we’re being optimistic?

  • RandomScrub

    After watching that highlight package its hard not to be excited about Virtanen.
    He is only 17 and clocks in at 6’1 and 210 and uses his size extremely well and according to the scouts he is also one of the best skaters in the WHL.

    “He won’t be a team’s primary puck carrier or scoring-chance creator”

    Didnt the highlight video show exactly the opposite of this? Almost every play was Virtanen uses his speed to gain the zone, uses his size to fight off checks and protect the puck while going hard to the net.

    If he doesnt score, isnt he going to create a ton of chances but doing just that?

    If his only real downfall is that he wont rack up assists, I think I can live with that if he continues to develop at an elite rate offensively.

  • Copperfinch

    Yeah, there’s not that many times I can remember the Canucks having players whose major problem was “not enough assists”. They used to say Thomas Gradin would look for someone to pass it to on a breakaway on an empty net. So I don’t care about that. I also think that the CA writers who’re so down on Virtanen’s selection are underplaying the size issue with Nylander and some of the others taken later. Virtanen’s not just a big power forward, he’s clearly got some serious skills and the skating and shot for that size should have been too much to pass up. I’m glad we didn’t. I still think I’d rank him right now as lower than Corrado or Jensen (because if we’re going on potential based on first draft eligible season Demko should be WAY higher than the 4 maybe 5 in front of him) but he’s going to be a better player than both of them in the long run.

  • Copperfinch

    There were many times during that highlight package when I swear I was watching James Neal from his junior days in Plymouth. Skating style, shot, size, all of it, even the lack of passing. Anyone with 40+ goal scoring potential like that is welcome on my team.

  • Copperfinch

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    Had Benning passed on Virtanen, the “Y U no draft WHLers/young power forward” articles/segments from the meathead Vancouver media crew would have surely been imminent.

  • Canafan

    Solid write-up for the most part and reasonably balanced between Virtanen’s strengths and areas of needed improvement. Only one peeve and that is in the continued use of this largely incorrect assumption about Virtanen’s linemates:

    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.

    I’ve discussed this with Hitmen watchers online and to-date all have confirmed that Virtanen rarely played with Chase and Brassart either 5 on 5 or on the PP. Rather he played primarily 2nd line minutes with a rotating cast of forwards.

    Here’s an assessment of Virtanen’s linemates from a post on CDC:

    Longtime Calgary Hitmen fan here…

    Jake is an amazing talent and you can tell that even at 17 that he can dominate at the junior level. However, this past year for him was a real catch-22: He didn’t play 1st line time with the Calgary Hitmen, as the team constantly went with the older veterans for the PP, the last few minutes, and for the majority of the ice time. The other side of the coin is that while he was getting less ice time and playing with 2nd/3rd line players, he consistently got into a “puck hog” mentality as the guys with him were not at the same offensive level.

    Hopefully this is something the writers at CA can rectify in their library of contextual facts about Virtanen. You guys seemed to abandon the “Ehlers plays with Drouin” trope that made the rounds amongst misinformed fans prior to the draft, would be nice if you could manage the same with our own draft pick.

    • Mantastic

      This claim that Virtanen played with Brassert, Tambellini and Chase is from looking at their TOIs. You would naturally assume that because Jake had a similar TOI, he was playing with other guys who played similar minutes. It just so happens that assumption is wrong with the Hitmen last year.

      Brassert, Tambellini and Chase were the Hitmen’s first line for the vast majority of the year. Jake played with Fazleev, Padakin, Mahon and Lang the most. The first two could be categorized as poor 3rd liners while Mahon and Lang were average 4th liners. How is anyone expected to get assists with such a meager supporting cast?

      • Canafan

        @nateb123 Thx for the deeper explanation, that pretty much jives with what I’ve heard from other Hitmen watchers. It’s a shame because this assumption seems to be made without much thought, even in this article – which I thought was pretty fair otherwise – where it is just ‘assumed’ that Jake played with Brassart and Chase and then goes on to question why his numbers are so low for playing with a couple of 85-pointers. If his numbers are so surprising in that context, it might bear checking on that assumption just a little bit.

  • Canuck4Life20

    I’m thrilled with Virtanen. When I read through the bios of potential top-10 picks before the draft he jumped out right away for his size and scoring ability but when I saw that he was from BC I knew right away that he was the right choice. Nylander and Ehlers probably will both be really good players one day but I just have a feeling that come playoff time in 5 years Virtanen will be the best choice.

    Wouldn’t it be something if a Virtanen, Horvat, Kassian line came to fruition? If all three players live up to their potential they could be a handful for the opposition at both ends of the ice.

  • Canuck4Life20

    @Canafan:

    Thanks for the extra scouting report. The context of linemates is important. If that’s true, then 45 goals at 17 is more impressive.

    The other scouting report by a Hitmen fan, and frequent blogosphere commenter, is here:
    http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2014/05/01/scouting-report-top-10-prospect-jake-virtanen-might-be-viable-option-if-oilers-trade-down/

    Ironically, Doogie2k, says that Virtanen needs to work on his skating. Sounds like he isn’t totally in control at top speed.

    • Canafan

      Thx, I was admittedly a big proponent of drafting Virtanen before the draft so I have followed him closely on hockey forums and in the various blogs and draft reports. I have read that write up before and was just as perplexed as you about the skating comment, though I found it a bit unclear as to what that particular fan was trying to say about Virtanen’s skating – seemed to think that Jake wasn’t comfortable dangling at full speed I think. He is a bit clearer on Jake’s role on the team in this blurb about his PP deployment:

      While he also took a regular power-play shift, it wasn’t always on the top unit, which probably explains why 35 of his 45 goals came at even strength.

      Once again a Hitman fan confirming that Jake didn’t get prime PP minutes (unlike Ehlers who at least got to play top PP minutes w Drouin in Halifax).

  • Copperfinch

    I think the way to look at it is: he has NHL size already, skates fast, and has a good shot. That sounds like a prototypical power forward. And most teams want a player like that.

    Also, I am not convinced that Ehlers and Nylander don’t simply become Filatov-like. Sure, the high-end skill is there, but if they can’t get to the puck or can’t outsmart their opponents, they’ll be European washouts within two years.

    It’s too bad we won’t get a closer look at him this fall. But that’s probably a good thing. Most of this year’s draft were players that at least needed their +1 CHL season. This way, Virtanen can go back to the Dub and not lose any confidence that he could have done more. I love built-in excuses!

  • ChickenSouvlaki

    First off, this comment is not directed at Mr. Drance because I know he isn’t the sole decision maker on these prospect lists:

    I love this blog and am a huge fan, but there is something that irks me about the way prospects are rated around here.

    Virtanen comes in at 3rd, behind Shinkaruk and Horvat. I do not necessarily have an issue with this, but it is just a very typical CA ranking. It seems CA just decides that certain prospects are superior to others simply because they are older. Last year Brendan Gaunce and Frank Corrado were ranked ahead of Bo Horvat and all of them along with Nicklas Jensen were ranked ahead of Shinkaruk. Now of course an argument can be made for Gaunce being the Canucks best prospect last summer, but realistically anyone can see that Horvat was already the superior player last year.

    What has Shinkaruk done this past year to be leap frogged ahead of Jensen, Gaunce, and Corrado? Im not saying he shouldn’t be ahead of them (he should’ve been last year), but the logic simply makes zero sense since Shinkaruk did next to nothing this past year while Gaunce/Jensen/Corrado all had good years.

    This year it seems the same thing has happened to a much lesser extent. Shinkaruk over Virtanen is a slight head scratcher for me, and I love Shinkaruk. The bottom line is Virtanen is over 2 years younger than Shinkaruk and was drafted 6th overall while Shinkaruk was drafted 24th overall. Yes, I know draft position means nothing now but let me pose the very question Mr. Drance posed: If you were Jim Benning and you could only keep one of the two, would you keep Jake Virtanen or Hunter Shinkaruk? I think it’s Virtanen every time.

    • andyg

      We could spend endless amounts of time arguing about who should be 1,2,3 and so on. Everyone will have their own way of looking at it.

      When was the last time you could look at the top 15 prospects in the Canucks system and say that 5 or 6 could become solid nhl players.Maybe become the core for the next 10 years. For that matter,when was the the last time we had 15 prospects worth evaluating?

      It is a good thing if we are arguing about who should be 1,2,3 and so on. Right?

    • You’re not wrong, age does play a role in how we evaluate prospects, but I don’t think “just because they’re older” really does a service to the actual reasoning behind such a decision.

      At the end of the day, it’s less a “he’s older therefore better” thing, and more of a sample size thing. We know that players can fluctuate wildly from year to year at the NHL level, and there’s no reason to believe this is different at the CHL level. The more games a prospect has played in the CHL, the more sure we can be in our projection. We have one year of relevant data on Jake Virtanen. We can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be as sure about him as we can be about Shinkaruk or Horvat.

      On another note, who CanucksArmy ranked last year as the top guy shouldn’t really be that relevant. The people who voted on this have changed significantly, and I’m quite sure that people like myself and Josh voting last year would have altered those results quite significantly too.

      For instance, at this time last year, Hunter Shinkaruk was the top prospect in my view and it wasn’t close. At all. Instead, he debuted at 5th and will jump in this years rankings despite not really playing at all. The reason? We just have different people voting. He didn’t get better in relation to Gaunce et all – in fact he probably lost ground to Gaunce – the people that voted this year just evaluate things differently than the people that got to vote last year.

      • andyg

        Isn’t part of a prospects rankings not just how good a player might be in their prime, but also how close they are to actually helping the team?

        At least that is how I always think of it when looking at prospects.

        With that in mind, the older guys getting ranked higher does tend to make sense, since you are far more likely to make the jump to pro at say 20 than 18.

        • Mantastic

          that’s a terrible way to evaluate a prospect, if the prospect is ready for being a replacement level player in the NHL now, should not make him ranked ahead of a prospect projected at being a 1st line player in 2 years.

  • Mantastic

    @Canafan and @nateb123:

    Makes you wonder if knowing the issue about linemates was the difference between lists that saw Virtanen as top 10 and those like Pronman’s that put him in the next 10.

    I don’t know much about junior hockey. Does this happen a lot? Are there a lot of first rounders who don’t play on the first line, and so they may have limited boxcars in their draft year?

    • Canafan

      I can’t say how often but certainly it does happen. Heck our own #9 pick last year played primarily 2nd line minutes/linemates outside of some PP time with Domi. Usually the top draftees do get top minutes but people forget that CHL ages range from 15 to 20 and there is a big difference in even one year of experience. So while Virtanen has undoubtedly more pro-upside than Brassart or Chase, at the CHL level they are older, more advanced players that their coach relied on to play heavier minutes. No doubt Jake has some growing to do in terms of how he uses and plays off of his linemates, but it isn’t unusual for kids with elite physical skills (skating, strength, shot) to play a more ‘individualistic’ game than players that don’t have the same level of skills. This upcoming season will be more telling as he is expected to play with Chase on the top line and therefore expected to play more within a team system, rather than the ‘quick strike’ style he used so much last year.