Quantifying the Impact of Jake Virtanen’s Speed

It’s not difficult to see why the Vancouver Canucks selected Jake Virtanen ahead of flashier items in the six hole at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The unique blend of speed, size and power jump out at any given moment and often take over hockey games.

There’s maybe four or five genuine power forwards in the game and the Canucks feel they’ve as good a shot as any at cultivating the sixth such archetype of the lot. Though not accounted for in his boxcars, Virtanen is beginning to reward their faith by using his speed to keep his team afloat at evens and dominate in transition.

Sometimes it’s the little things that add up. Virtanen is doing enough of them well to not only bolster expectations for a brighter tomorrow but advance the Canucks goals in the interim as well.

Speed is one of the more difficult attributes to account for. At least numerically. If you’re trying to figure out the physical impact any player is having, just look at their hits. Or if you’re looking at finishing ability, perhaps their shooting percentage. It’s a bit more of a guessing game with speed. I mean, don’t get me wrong… the “nextgen” stats which account for the actual speed of the puck carrier help bridge the gap – it’s a start, anyways.

Intuitively, a player’s penalty differential seems like a good place to start. Hard to draw obstruction penalties when you do much of the opposition’s work yourself – I’m looking at you, Brandon Prust. By this metric, Virtanen ranks second on the Canucks and 73rd in the league among skaters with more than 100-minutes TOI at even strength, with a net positive 0.60 PenD/60.

It’s a repeatable skill, although the well has known to run dry in the past for player’s of Alex Burrows and Brad Marchand’s flavour. Do it often enough and goals follow. Worst case scenario, a team relinquishes possession for two minutes at a time a la football. 

Another area where I’ve found speed creates tangible separation from player to player is the neutral zone. I began putting the pieces together when Corey Sznajder made his zone entry data available to the public for the 2013-14 season and the burners ranked near the top almost across the board.

Using my own set of data, which accounts for all of the Vancouver Canucks games – minus a December 26th contest against the L.A. Kings – I’m noticing a similar set of patterns. 

For example: among regular and semi-regular Canucks skaters, Virtanen is first in Successful Entries/60 with 28.8. When refined to account solely for Controlled Entries/60, Virtanen ranks sixth among Canucks skaters with 13.3. The Canucks are making excellent use of Virtanen’s neutral zone flare, with 11.1 FF/60 on entries.

Depending who you ask, win the neutral zone and you’ve won the game. Limit the opposition’s ability to so much as enter your zone and you’re halfway there. With just three goals and six points to account for in his first 29 NHL games, the next step will be learning to make good on the opportunities his skill set affords him.

  • Squibbles

    Though seriously, it would be nice to have some graphs to be able to visually see how he stacks up against other players on the team. Is he along with the other top 6 separate from everyone else or is it all super close and there’s only a very small variation between them?

  • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

    I agree that a graph chart would be nice. Either way, it’s good to know Virtanen is on the winning side of the neutral zone war.

    However, I didn’t like the usage of the dreaded PF words. That’s right, Power Forward. Again, what do you call a player who lands two hits and scores at a rate of 0.5 points per game? Not good enough.

  • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

    I feel like he’s a bit too defensively responsible in the offensive zone. His line mates will rush in on the forecheck and he’ll hold position on the blue line making sure we’re not shorthanded if the play goes the other way.

    The offence will come when he’s let off the leash which should come soon – he could hardly do more to prove that he can be defensively responsible.

    • Whackanuck

      I 100% agree with this comment. In fact, this is exactly what Sven Baertschi was doing his first 20 or so games before he broke out. Now he has the confidence in himself and from the coach to use his skill in the offensive zone. He’s learned the game from the D zone to the O zone, and I feel Jake is well on his way to doing the same.

      Being a fancy stats cover boy at 19 is huge for gauging his potential and I think he’s learning the game the right way to become a game breaker down the road.
      Think Ovechkin-lite with this kid.

  • Whackanuck

    Big Jake is working towards the power forward position. Being defensively responsible is a must and has to come first. This is part of his player development. Jake is not a soft skill guy and his value will come, but it takes time. We haven’t had a guy like him since Todd Bertuzzi. He brings stuff to the table that others don’t.

  • Whackanuck

    So, JD there’s plenty of big forwards in the NHL that go for the net.

    So who are the 4 or 5 power forwards in the NHL and what characteristics qualify them as power forwards?

      • Whackanuck

        It is an interesting read. I can see where the coffee shop arguments stem. Hits is something I’m suspicious of. As you mentioned its a judged stat. Also the only hits I value are the ones that separate the carrier from the puck-essentially a defensive stat. Additionally many forwards (read grinders) have high hit totals but of the intimidation type that really don’t help a team win. Hits as they are recorded now are, IMO, are an obsolescent stat. I would include guys like Iginla as he and similar players have a power drive to the net, an offense characteristic, but very hard to quantify.

        • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

          Not to mention that high hit totals usually imply you’re being out-possessed, both on team and individual (though this one can be heavily skewed by deployment pattern) levels.