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.