Photo Courtesy: Hockey Canada
On Tuesday morning Team Canada’s U20 men’s ice hockey team invited 30 players to the ‘selection camp’ for the upcoming World Junior Championship. For the first time in a while, there were no Canucks prospects on the invite list.
Canucks teenagers Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen would’ve been slam dunk invitees if they were playing in major junior though. They’re NHL players now so they won’t take part in the selection camp, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that McCann and Virtanen won’t represent Team Canada at the 2016 tournament in Finland later this month.
“We’ll see where we’re at if they get asked to play on the World Junior team, we’ll make that decision then,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said in November when asked whether Virtanen and McCann might be released to Team Canada for the World Junior tournament.
The NHL’s annual holiday roster freeze goes into effect on December 19, so the Canucks have a few weeks yet to decide whether or not to send Virtanen and McCann (or one of them) to the tournament. We know that Scott Salmond of Hockey Canada has been working the phones and diligently checking in on the status of McCann and Virtanen for weeks now.
Canada hasn’t closed door on Fabbri, Virtanen, McCann for world jr. Talks continue with Blues, Canucks respectively.
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) December 1, 2015
It’s my view that Virtanen – if he’s healthy after taking a Ryan Getzlaf cross-check to the ribs on Monday night – should be a serious candidate to be given a couple of weeks off from NHL action to go dominate against players in his age group. Meanwhile the idea of sending McCann to Finland for the prestigious international tournament should be a non-starter.
It comes down to two things, really: depth and performance.
With Brandon Sutter out of the lineup with injury, the Canucks have needed McCann to step up and hold down a key role as a middle-six pivot in recent weeks. Though his hot offensive start to the season has cooled in November, McCann’s two-way results have been steadily improving and he’s seen a corresponding increase in average ice time per game.
Even when Sutter returns to the lineup, McCann has demonstrated that he’s reliable defensively and that he has good chemistry with Brandon Prust and Derek Dorsett. He can hold down a fourth-line role, and that’s arguably even the most sensible spot in the lineup for him.
McCann is on an accelerated learning curve, and fits in nicely with the Bo Horvat apprenticeship program, which we saw outlined last season. The Bo Horvat apprenticeship program does not include a mid-season stint with Team Canada’s U20 team.
The Canucks’ decision not to send Horvat to the World Junior tournament last season paid dividends in the second half of the campaign, when the rookie pivot seemed to find his game and become a consistent offensive threat down the stretch. I see little reason why the club would handle McCann any differently. In fact, I’d argue that McCann has made a larger impact in his first handful of games as a 19-year-old than Horvat did.
It’s a bit of a different story for Virtanen. Though the physical winger has shown flashes of being dynamic through the neutral zone, it seems that the big hits and the heavy physical game that he brought repeatedly in October has fallen off somewhat. He’s also been a more regular healthy scratch, watching three games in November from the press box, including two of the club’s past four contests.
Vancouver is also far deeper on the wing than they are down the middle of their forward group. In addition to having Sven Baertschi – who has been swapping places in the lineup with Virtanen over the past week – the Canucks have a trio of NHL-ready wingers in the American League in Brendan Gaunce, Alexandre Grenier and Hunter Shinkaruk. Ronalds Kenins also recently returned from injury, and could prove useful if the Canucks want to amp up their forechecking.
Now Virtanen’s injury status may complicate things. The power winger sustained a rib injury on Monday night, and while he didn’t fracture anything, there’s no timeline for his return:
Desjardins said Virtanen’s (rib) injury was not of a serious nature and there was no fracture. No timeline for his return. #Canucks
— Ben Kuzma (@benkuzma) December 1, 2015
If Virtanen is healthy in time for the tournament, it seems to me that he could benefit from being the biggest fish on international ice for Team Canada for a couple of weeks. He hasn’t been all that productive or all that heavily relied upon by the Canucks over the past month, and scoring some goals and mauling some younger opponents could help jumpstart his confidence.
Based on the way the Canucks roster is constructed and on McCann and Virtanen’s recent performance, it seems fair to suggest that while Virtanen could conceivably benefit from a two week stint with Team Canada’s U20 team, the Canucks can’t afford to spare McCann.