With Virtanen it’s confidence issues, not injuries, holding him back right now

While there is much concern from the outside about the
health of Jake Virtanen’s shoulder these days, the bigger issue seems like a crisis
of confidence for the second year Vancouver Canuck power forward. Virtanen has
yet to leave a mark on any of the five games he’s played this season and
following an optional practice the morning after a 3-0 loss to the Ottawa
Senators, Virtanen admitted he’s struggling to find the form that made him
effective in the second half of his rookie season.

                He says
his head more than his shoulder his holding him back right now.

“Thinking back on it, last year a
couple of my goals I had speed coming through the neutral zone,” Virtanen says.
“Right now, it’s ‘should I go or should I not go?’ The NHL is a really structured
game so you don’t want to be caught in the wrong spot. You’re always concerned
because the margin for error is so small if you make a mistake it can be in the
back of your net really quick. I want to have the confidence to go and play and
do what I used to do.”

The Canucks would certainly
welcome that because so far Virtanen has had trouble finding either his
offensive stride or the ability to be a physical force. On Tuesday, the
20-year-old Abbotsford native saw the ice for just 8:26 including three shifts
over the final 10 minutes of the game – and one of those came after the Sens
sealed the victory into an empty net.

On the season, Virtanen has yet
to register a point and has an even-strength Corsi For of 46.9% despite a
deployment that has seen him on the ice for 56.9% of face-offs in the offensive
zone. Virtanen admits that his limited role in the early going and a constant
shuffle of linemates hasn’t allowed him to contribute the way he’d like or knows
he’s capable of.

“I think the last couple of games
have been okay, but I haven’t really been there,” he says.” The lines have been
changed pretty much every day so you’re not sure who you’re playing with. If
you’re in the line-up, you like being able to get chemistry with your teammates
and your linemates especially. And with Bo and Baertsch, we do have chemistry
but when we’re switched around a lot it’s kind of hard to get that line going
all the time. I have to play my game each and every night, but it’s hard to
keep it going.”

The Canucks need the sixth
overall pick in the 2014 draft to develop into a player they can rely on. Right
now, though, that’s clearly not where Virtanen finds himself.

“I have to earn that, but I want
to go out there in the games and be an every shift kind of guy,” he says. “Last
night, I was only out there for about seven minutes. I wanted to make the most
of it. But with five to seven minutes of ice, it’s pretty hard to get stuff
going when you’re sitting for so long and you’re sitting on the bench and after
10 or 11 minutes you get back out there. That’s just part of the game. Willie
wanted to win last night and he was playing the guys who he thought could win
the game.”

Canucks head coach Willie
Desjardins insists he hasn’t in any way soured on Virtanen. He points to the
player who channelled his frustration over being singled out as one of the
reasons Canada failed to reach the podium at the World Junior championship a
year ago and returned to the NHL hungry and motivated. Desjardins remembers well
how Virtanen used his size and speed effectively and didn’t seem overwhelmed or
adversely affected by NHL matchups.

Desjardins is well aware what
Virtanen means to the future of the franchise, but as a coach he needs the
player to earn his opportunities. And so far this season, Virtanen hasn’t done
that.

“Jake is a player, with his
talent and ability, he needs to be a top nine forward for sure and probably a
top six,” Desjardins says. “He has the ability to do that. We have to get him
to that spot where he can do it. We have to get him back to that point again where
he’s hungry and motivated. I thought the first game against Calgary he had a
couple of pretty good chances and since then it hasn’t been quite as good.  When he gets himself to the point in his game
where he’s structurally sound, he can be that player. He’s good enough to do
that. But right now he’s not at that point. He’s working to get there though.
It not like he’s not trying to work and get through it.”

                With
injuries to Alex Burrows and Derek Dorsett and word now that Anton Rodin is on
a 4-6 week recovery program, Virtanen shouldn’t have to worry about constant
rumblings about his need to spend time in the American Hockey League. For the foreseeable
future, it appears Virtanen will be a part of the Canucks forward group and it’s
up to him to find a way to contribute and earn more ice time.

                He
knows he has more to give and both he and the Canucks hope to see it soon.

“I still feel like if I’m getting
out there and playing a regular shift, I’ll be able to do that,” Virtanen says.
“That’s my game. In junior, I was relied on to score and coming here was obviously
a little bit of a change because I’m not that guy right now. I want to be able
to go out there and help produce and be productive when I get the opportunity.”

While there may still be some
tenderness in the shoulder Virtanen injured on opening night in the preseason,
his biggest injury issue right now is a headache. That comes with the territory
when you’re a young player overthinking and over processing the situation
rather than simply getting out on the ice and playing on instinct.

  • Steampuck

    It’s hard to know what’s best for Virtanen’s development, but it’s still early days. Detroit’s Anthony Mantha—a similar type of player—is still only just coming into his own, even though he’s older. The season is also young. They eye test says he was better against Ottawa than in the previous few games; good to see that the numbers back that up.

  • Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a hockey league where a prospect could develop his game and build his confidence against lesser competition, get more ice-time, have less travel, have a coach that is focused on player development and not winning (job security), one could earn 85% more than the CDN average annual salary *and* the team was still affiliated with the Canucks?

  • Chungus

    Reading the quotes in this article screams to me that Virtanen needs to be in the AHL logging heavy minutes in all situations. I don’t know why we think playing him 8-9 minutes a game is going to make him a consistent scorer.

    I don’t know what the hell he is doing here tbh and I think it is having a negative impact on his development; nothing permanent but should be corrected immediately.

  • Copperfinch

    I hate what they’re doing to this guy. He wasn’t ready for the NHL last year and he still isn’t ready this year, yet they keep pushing him through. It’s no wonder he’s having a confidence crisis. He should be in Utica getting humble pie served to him by the perennial fringe players. Megna or Rendulic would serve the team better at this point anyway.

  • Rodeobill

    “Jake is a player, with his talent and ability, he needs to be a top nine forward for sure and probably a top six,” Desjardins says after putting him on the bottom line.

    I was never in the “send Jake down” camp until I read this suprisingly honest self reflection. This lack of confidence, to me, is a coaching failure. I dont think WD is a bad coach, but this is where a coach needs to be clear about what he expects and wants from a player. Empower the player, not face him with hesitation of choosing to second guess “what would Willie Do?” (yes, i can see the bumper stickers now) or a damned if you do, damned if you dont.

    Virtanen is NHL ready, at least as much as Tkachuck is. If there is any creedence to the above, he just isn’t Willie ready. He needs to follow Hansen a little more and honey badger it up a bit. I believe that what he would bring would surpass the mistakes he made, and his learning curve would rocket.

  • Bud Poile

    Handing a kid an NHL starting position when he is,at best,a prospect that should be working his tail off in the AHL was and is the problem.

    Let’s all hope Rodin can play so this comedy ends soon.

  • Buula

    Sounds like Virtanen needs to take some responsibility for his less than stellar play versus blaming his line makes and Willy.

    The kid maybe needs to get some media hate going on again like after the world juniors to spark a fire under his ass to “show us all up”.

    If we could send him to the AHL he would get the message and quit taking his NHL gift wrapped spot for granted.

    Anyone else thing he looked chubby when season started and on the ice isn’t nearly as fast as he looked last year?

  • pinhigh

    It has to be hard to play the way he has to play when you are scared to make a mistake. Willie needs to let the young guys learn from their mistakes rather than cut their ice time if they screw up. I think the fan base could accept that. Better than the modified trap system that is presently putting everyone to sleep

  • TheRealRusty

    Thank you GMJBTL for doing what you say and letting prospects overripen in the minors before bringing them up to the big club… NOT.

    Our fearless leaders caved into public pressure last year by publicly saying that the “best” players would make the team out of training camp and thus painting themselves into a corner. They compounded the mistake by keeping Virtanen and McCann on the roster past the 10 & 40 game marks, when it was obvious that they were better served dominating major junior hockey (playing at the Worlds).

    This act not only stunted the growth of both prospects (how much ice time did they lose out on last year?), but also needlessly burnt away a year of their ELC and brought them a year closer to UFA. Worst still, keeping them up in the NHL fostered a sense of entitlement in both players, whereby now the AHL seems to be a step backwards instead of being a natural progression in their development. All this piling more pressure than is needed on these kids as they struggle to live up to their draft ranking; all without getting sufficient ice time to develop properly. How can a NHL coach (worried about his job) take a chance on providing the necessary minutes for Virtanen to develop when he has an owner with a win-now mandate?

    Tons of rookie mistakes made by a rookie management team.

    But the biggest blame lies on the greedy owners of this team, who should have squirrelled away all the profits from overinflated ticket prices during the cup run years (2009 playoff profits in excess of $20 million). They should have done a strategic tank during the McDavid/Eichel guaranteed lottery year and they should have given management the green light to do a proper rebuild.

    • Dirk22

      But if they did a ‘proper rebuild’ the fans would have to suffer through excruciating boring/losing hockey – (unlike the fine exciting product we get to watch now)

      The young players wouldn’t be able to learn “how to win’ – (like they did last year in 28th place)

      …and the owners wouldn’t be in contention for all that playoff revenue (that isn’t coming anytime soon)

  • JMoney

    Last year I thought it made sense to keep him with the big team rather than send him back to juniors. But now that Utica is open to him, it seems like that’s where he should be.

    It may just be the injuries keeping him up right now. That’s not something a coach or GM would ever say. If Rodin can come back from injury and contribute Jake prob gets sent down.

    In the meantime though I don’t think it’s the worst thing to let a young player try and work through a slump.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    When Jake’s 20-year old, macho boy ego gets over it, he’ll realize that a trip to Utica was the best thing for him, the team now and the team in the future. It’s not that big of a deal to get 20 minutes a night to push forward your development. He’s not helping here now, and I’d frankly like to get a look at Rendulic, LaBate, even Grenier again while we have injuries.

    How much of keeping him up is face-saving from management right now? They passed on Nylander (9 points in 6 games on Toronto’s top line), Ehlers (18 minutes a night in Winnipeg) and Larkin (NHL all star) to take him, and he’s obviously scuffling right now. I think Jake will grow into a solid, 2nd line calibre NHLer at some point, but keeping him in the NHL permanently isn’t helping anyone or fooling anyone.

  • Andy

    two observations:

    1. I don’t ever blame a hockey player for wanting to play in the best possible league, even if they feel outmatched. Truth is, a large majority of prospects never get to their second or third contract. Virtanen is likely to have a long future, but I could easily see naysayers squawking at him if he admitted to being better served in the minors.

    2. We also don’t know how Jake feels about going down. Unfortunately, we’ll never know the truth, as these high end prospects are often over coached on how to talk to media, lest they be branded as selfish (for believing in their abilities) or mentally weak (for agreeing with needing to be sent down)

    That said, this is the 3rd or 4th player in WD’s 2+ seasons to be baffled by lineup changes, so I’m not surprised that JV isn’t sure if he’s in the doghouse, or knows how to get out.