When Jim Benning walked up to the podium and selected Jake Virtanen as his first ever drafted prospect as GM of the Vancouver Canucks in 2014, many members of the fanbase were concerned, and understandably so. After all, Virtanen was ranked by many in the 8-10 range heading in, and a big part of him being ranked even that high was being “physically ready” for the NHL. Yet, here they were taking him with the sixth pick.
Fast forward a year and change. Thanks to the faster growth of other prospects, even those taken after him, confidence in him is at an all-time low. But, that doesn’t mean that Virtanen is a lost cause. Far from it, actually; he’s still a very, very good prospect and amongst the best in Vancouver’s system.
First, let’s talk a bit about why he was selected to begin with. Virtanen brought three things to the table that impressed scouts and fans alike – size, speed, and scoring touch. Teams love right wingers with an explosive stride, the ability to stop and turn on a dime, and a heavy shot. They love them even more when they’re 6’1, 205 at the age of seventeen.
A formidable adversary for any challenger, Jake Virtanen is an imposing power forward in the truest sense. Possesses a non-stopping motor and creates an abundance of on-ice energy when throwing his weight around and establishing his physical presence. Exhibits world-class skating ability, and can blow by defenders just as easily as he can go through them. Stands up for his teammates and never backs down to a challenge. Displays a wicked, NHL-level release that challenges goaltenders of all skill levels. Becoming a recognizable asset when playing a more defensive role as well. All-in-all, a physical power forward that has the character traits, work ethic, and individual skills to pose a threat to whoever stands in his way. -Curtis Joe, EliteProspects.com
He had the stats to match it too. His rookie year with the Calgary Hitmen was solid for a sixteen-year-old; 16 goals and 18 assists in 62 games is nothing to scoff at, with everything considered. But the draft year? He scored an insane 45 goals in 71 games, putting him sixth in goals despite being the only draft-eligible player in the top ten. He also put up 100 penalty minutes, asserting himself as a power forward to anyone who would notice.
But then, this happened.
What caused his stock to fall? Well, on paper, he didn’t develop much. Virtanen kept his point per game pace, scoring 52 points in 50 games, but didn’t improve like most Draft+1 players do. There are many reasons that this might be the case, but it’s most likely connected to regaining 100% comfort after his shoulder injury that he suffered at the tail end of the prior season. A known issue when he was drafted, Virtanen underwent surgery to repair the damage and started the season late. With that said, his production remained consistent throughout the year, so the jury is out as to whether it made a difference.
Beyond the Calgary Hitmen, Virtanen made a couple of other special appearances on other stages. Over the holidays, he joined Team Canada at the U20 World Junior Hockey Championships, and picked up a goal and three assists in seven games.
Virtanen also made a ten-game cameo with the Utica Comets during their run to the Calder Cup Finals, though he only picked up an assist. In any event, it was useful time spent for a player hoping to make the jump to the professional game in the near future, as he told the Vancouver Province in July:
“It’s great experience for me at the pro level,” he said. “The intensity and obviously playoffs is even more so. The leaders on the team, (veteran centre) Cal O’Reilly and the coaches, just said play my game and go out and hit guys. Carter Bancks got hurt and I just tried to fill that role.”
It’s hard to say where Virtanen ends up. The dream, of course, is that all of his physical tools align to make him into the type of big, quick, rushing power forward that you see in the above clip. If all goes to plan, this may just be a first line winger that the Canucks have waiting in the cards.
Understandably, there’s some skepticism. But this is a situation where you can’t just point at other players and yell at the prospect for not being them. Virtanen, for better or worse, can only be himself. It’s up to the Canucks to turn him into the best version of himself possible – whether that involves him making the jump to the NHL now or taking one more crack at dominating the WHL as a 19-year-old remains to be seen. But if it all works out, watch out.