The Vancouver Canucks media availability after Wednesday’s optional skate gave the media and fans alike a lot to chew on this week. Paramount in the discussion was speculation that Jake Virtanen wasn’t on the same page with Canucks Head Coach Willie Desjardins.
Virtanen wants to be a difference maker and doesn’t think the ice-time afforded him allows that opportunity. This city already had questions about the club’s long-term plans with Virtanen. Many are left wondering if the Utica Comets aren’t a better option for Virtanen’s development. Wednesday’s revelations only added fuel to the fire.
Virtanen said he was all-in this summer, training every day and working on his on-ice skills. Having scored 7 goals last season, Jim Benning openly said he expected 12-15 for the 20-year-old in his sophomore season. Jumping from 208 pounds to 229, Virtanen got bigger and stronger. He stated that he sometimes felt too easy to push around when he was on the lighter side, so gaining mass should overall make him harder to play against. It’s safe to say he was expected to come into this season much improved from last, trying to avoid the well-known “sophomore slump”.
Five games into the season, there are zeros across Virtanen’s main statistics sheet. Averaging 9:56 of ice-time, he’s had 8 shots on goal and 10 hits. He did, however, get “promoted” to the Horvat and Baertschi’s line vs. Edmonton. His ice time jumped to 12:22 but had just one shot and two hits. Whether or not he sticks on that line is unknown, but it appears as if Willie Desjardins is increasing his opportunities in small increments. He was better in the Oilers game, but has not exactly stood out as of yet. He has taken some hard beatings earlier in the season, so a lingering injury may potentially be a factor. However, judging by he and Willie Desjardins’ recent comments, that is not the case.
Jake Virtanen: “I haven’t really been there. The lines have been changed every day so you’re not sure who you’re playing with. Being with Bo and Baertschi, we do have chemistry but when we’re switched around, it’s hard to get the line going. At the same time, I have to play my game. It’s just hard to keep it going. I have to earn it, but at the same time I have to go out there and be an every-shift kind of guy. I don’t feel dangerous yet, but if I get out there and play regular shifts, I can do that.”
If you have not yet heard Virtanen and Desjardins’ full media availability, you can listen here and here. What we have is a “chicken and the egg” situation: Virtanen wants more ice time in order to play well, but Desjardins is not willing to reward him if he does not earn it. Whether one thinks the player is whining or the coach is simply not being smart, this ordeal is an endless circle of a cause-and-effect relation. Feel free to pick your side, but there will always be an appropriate counter-argument from the other.
Willie Desjardins: “All players want more ice time and Jake has expressed that. Every guy on my team that wants more, so that’s not an unusual comment or feeling. I think he’s a little frustrated and I understand that. With his game, there’s certain expectations we have. The media and fans don’t see it, but there’s things we’re working on to try to make the player have a chance to be successful. I think Jake has the talent to be a top-9 for sure, or even top-6. He could be a power forward; he’s got power, he can shoot the puck, he goes to the net. He has lots to his game that makes him a good player. But obviously if he was doing those things now, I’d be playing him more and he’d be playing uo the lineup with regular players. It’s not that I don’t think Jake doesn’t have the talent to do it, I just don’t think he’s quite in the spot where he needs to be yet.”
Willie Desjardins: “We’ve had the conversation numerous times. We’ve talked to him about where we need him to be and what we want from him. Last season at the end of the year, we said ‘Okay this is where we need you to be,’ but he wasn’t quite where we needed him when camp started. We talked again and expressed it.”
Willie Desjardins: “For Baertschi, last year was a slow start and we were making him earn it – then we gave him a little bit and he started to play better. It’s about when do you give him a little bit more. You give him more once they start really going after it and trying to get where they need to get to. Once they do that, then they’re ready to have more.”
The Canucks are in a predicament. The Canucks are struggling to score goals – Virtanen has that ability, but he hasn’t displayed it yet. One can argue that he has not necessarily been given the right opportunities, but then one can also say that he has not earned those opportunities. As for what the media is saying about Virtanen, their opinions vary…
Dave Tomlinson: “I think Jake can, with his play, elevate himself in the lineup. Hopefully they put him in the lineup and he elevates his play. When he gets himself going and gets himself into hockey games, and it’s noticeable and consistent, everybody is better. I think the head coach wants Virtanen to play well, and I think Jake wants to play well too. Which comes first: Do you play him and hope he plays well? Or do you hope he plays well and give him more minutes? This isn’t management and coach versus player. They just want to see more consistent positives from Virtanen.”
Iain MacIntyre: “The last thing Willie wants to do is throw more on the fire. They understand that this is a young, frustrated player and I think they’re handling it well. The best thing, I think, would be for him to go down to Utica; play 18 minutes, score some goals, get his confidence up, play a lot so maybe he gets into better shape. There is not a benefit having him in and out of the lineup and playing him on the 4th line. Right now, I don’t see Jake developing in his situation. I know he worked hard (in the summer), I know that his conditioning is going to be a constant challenge. He just has a big physique and they’re still learning how to eat and how to train. It’s just an ongoing challenge.”
Craig Button: “It’s a balancing act for Jim Benning and the management staff. If you don’t think he can do more if you give him more time, you have to get him in a situation where he can excel, and that’s not in the NHL. If you see Jake Virtanen as a 4th-line player, keep him up. I don’t think, when you draft a player 6th overall, you see him as a 4th-line player. What do you see him as? And what does he need to do to become the player he think he can become? Get him down to Utica, get him playing, get him playing on the power play and offensive situations. Not only can he have success, he can build confidence on that success. That’s how you ultimately develop a player and get what you want out of that player.”
We will never know what the Canucks management’s plan for Virtanen is this year, but one could say that the sidelined Anton Rodin is a large factor in why he is not in Utica. Still on the LTIR, it will apparently be a few more weeks before Rodin is 100% healthy. Barring any substantial roster addition, Virtanen will likely stay in Vancouver at least until then. Playing in the AHL would certainly bring benefits to his game – he will receive top-line minutes, be a go-to player, and simply get to refine and develop his all-around game. Staying in Vancouver might also be beneficial… as long as he is put in the right situations. Playing 10 minutes per game is less than ideal, and Virtanen may have little to gain. The whole predicament is based on the premise that Virtanen will be a better player if he is playing more minutes, but Desjardins is unwilling to give him more minutes unless he plays better. One can continually argue about who to defend, but it appears evident that, sooner or later, one party is going to have to budge.
Source: TSN 1040