On Jake Virtanen’s Brief AHL Stint

Virtanen Comets

Since I know most people are going to be
curious about how young Jake Virtanen did in his brief stint in Utica, I thought I’d give him his very own section in the weekly Comets update. Then it just kept expanding and expanding and instead of a section, he gets his very own article.

Here I’ve compiled my observations from Friday and Saturday’s games in Utica, where Virtanen showed signed of progress before being yanked back up to sit in an NHL press box. Please enjoy.

In Friday’s game, the
sizable 20-year old played like he’d been playing in the NHL to this point –
quietly, tentatively, leaning defensively. He had just one shot on net (though
he was registered for zero, I have proof to
the contrary
), as well as one missed shot. He played on a line with
Curtis Valk and Darren Archibald that, although it was listed as the second
line, was basically deployed as the first line in terms of rotation.

Virtanen Shifts (11-Nov-16)

He also played on the team’s second power play
unit, which was populated by more AHL contracts than NHL contracts. The unit
was centered by Curtis Valk for part of the game, and Phil DeSimone for other
parts as the two units swapped personnel. His place on the second unit is why
he didn’t have any power play offensive zone starts in the chart above. With a
total of 20 shifts, Virtanen logged around 18 minutes or so. His shifts were
diminished in the third because the Comets were killing penalties, and Green
seemed to have no interest in trying Virtanen in that role.

A side note that includes both games: he wasn’t particularly physical. He hit a couple of guys here and there, but he didn’t lay anyone out. It was a far cry from the 18-year old Jake Virtanen that leveled a 200 pound defenceman in one of his first shifts in Utica a year and a half ago during the 2015 Calder Cup playoffs.

The big hits seem to have disappeared from his game, both here and in the NHL, which is why those shoulder injury rumors remain persistent.

All in all, his first game was a bit
disappointing. He was given the puck in the neutral zone a lot and used his
speed to drive into the offensive zone with possession, but he was often angled
to the corner, failed to make passes to the slot of drive to the net, and
generally let the play die on his stick.

Virtanen spent much of
Saturday morning watching game tape with Travis Green and discussing his play.
When he suited up Saturday night, he looked like a completely different player.

Virtanen was solid from the start, and had
four shots on net in the first period alone. He was all over the puck and
seemed to be able to take it towards the net at will – this was the player that
the Canucks originally drafted from the Calgary Hitmen. Here’s a compilation of
his shots from the weekend (the first is from Friday, the rest are from
Saturday).

His first period was
clearly his strongest. In the second period, the Comets got a lot of power play
time. Virtanen was again deployed on the second unit, and they had no trouble
at all getting zone time. The gripe here is that he had a case of tunnel vision
– he was clearly focused on getting pucks to the net and neglected to use his
teammates at all, including a number of times when they were open.

Following a large number of blocked shots,
Virtanen seemed to get the message. In a late 2-on-1, he threaded a pass
through to linemate Darren Archibald, though it didn’t amount to anything. The
fact that he at least tried the pass indicated that some sort of learning was
taking place – he saw something wasn’t working and tried something different.
This is why he was sent down in the first place, to get opportunities for trial
and error.

Virtanen Shifts (12-Nov-16)

Virtanen was basically unused for the entirety
of the third period as the Comets got themselves into a heap of penalty
trouble, including a number of misconducts for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Virtanen, who didn’t spend a second killing penalties over the course of the
weekend, was charged with serving a couple of penalties for players that got
misconducts.

Despite having to sit around for a lot of the
third period, Virtanen best chance of the game came near the very end. With the
game tied, he nearly put it away in the final minutes, when he had a burst of
speed so powerful, every other player in the vicinity looked like they were
standing still. He took off on a breakaway and had a chance on net, but
unfortunately got under it and snapped it high and wide. Nevertheless, it was
an impressive play – it’s the final play in the video above if you want to take
a look.

That play is exactly why I find his recall so frustrating.

As good as Virtanen was on
Saturday, it still boggles my mind that they could bring him back up so
quickly, and then not even play him. If he just going to be around for
practice, why not have him working with Travis Green, who seemed to get more
progression out of him in one weekend than the Canucks have all year.
Virtanen’s confidence seems to have rebounded, but I can’t imagine that it will
take that long to erode again if he’s headed straight back to the press box. At
least in Utica he’d have a chance to be a central figure on a team that needs
offence, and finally put up some numbers. It’s been long enough.

The point of this isn’t to shame Virtanen, or even to cast aspersions of a selection by Jim Benning’s crew that already receives daily criticism. If the Canucks are going to salvage Virtanen’s career, they should be getting him to a place where he has the potential to dominate. At this young age, he’s a bit player in the NHL, deployed as a third or fourth liner, if he’s deployed at all. In the AHL, he could play like he did on Saturday: as a top line forward with regular power play time, and the chance to seriously burn his opponents. That has to be better for the kid’s confidence than just struggling to keep his head above water in the NHL.

The mixed messages that the Canucks are sending to a player who is supposed to be part of the future core seem more likely to addle the 20-year old’s brain. Upon his return, there seems to be no intention of playing him. Rather, Willie has set more subjective thresholds for him to pass and more hoops to jump through. First it was day-to-day consistency, then he needed to score goals, then he needed to get his confidence back, and now it’s about practice habits. Asked earlier today, Willie revealed that the his recall was partially based on the fact that he didn’t have luggage, which is just a mind blowing response from an NHL coach.

I mean it’s not like there’s any way to get stuff to somebody all the way in Utica.

What it seems like instead is a team that is more concerned about the public relations factor of leaving a 6th overall pick in the minors rather than doing what is best for that player. How long until he plays again is unknown, as is how much he’ll play when he gets back in. If this is how they’re going to continue to handle him in the NHL, I’d much rather be watching him develop with Travis Green and the Comets.

  • Beefus

    As I’ve posted previously the Canucks appear to be going down the same road with Virtanen as they did with Cam Neely in the 80’s. Jake needs someone like Travis Green to teach him the pro game. He would be much better off playing big minutes in Utica and come up to the NHL when he’s ready. Sitting in the press box or playing 8 minutes a night will only destroy his confidence further. We can only hope that the relationship doesn’t become so damaged that (like Neely) he feels that he must start fresh with a new organization.

  • Freud

    There were the hints last year.

    The team didn’t like him hanging out in LA with actresses during the all star break. Then there were the Justin Bieber photos. Then suggestions he was too heavy at the end of the year. The Sedins were hinting that the young guys weren’t acting like pros.

    Rumours have Virtanen working hard over the summer, but falling back into old habits of poor eating and lots of beer once the season started.

    Management is using cliches like ‘trust” “earning it” and “consistency” to throw the public off the sent that they’re not happy with his off ice habits. Tryamkin is more evidence that this is their approach. They don’t want him staying in Utica longer term as they can’t keep tabs on him as closely there.

    The question is if this is deserved or not.

    This season, Virtanen has not been on the ice for a goal against in over 100 minutes. You can’t trust him is BS.

    Tryamkin has not shown conditioning problems since he started. Benning was front and centre in overreacting on Seguin’s habits.

    I thought they do in-depth interviews with draftees to know if this stuff will be an issue or not?

    • Bud Poile

      “I thought they do in-depth interviews with draftees to know if this stuff will be an issue or not?” Freud

      Q. “Jake,how much do you drink?”

      A. “I never drink much. Mom lets me have a glass of wine at dinner. Drinking is not a problem.”

      Q.”Jake,if you had the choice of staying up all night with Justin Bieber and half a dozen blonde bimbos or going to bed at 10:30 pm so as to be on the ice at 8 a.m,which would you choose?”

      A. “All I ever wanted was to play in the NHL.I will do anything to be a Vancouver Canuck.”

      Signs contract,becomes teenage millionaire,gets fancy digs and wheels-straight out with Biebs and the babes, drinking up a storm.

      Might explain why they want to keep him in Vancouver.Yeah.

      If he gets out of control they will send him along as the seasoned professionals that have committed all for their careers and family don’t need to be subject to spoiled kids being mollycoddled.

      No professional organisation puts up with overpaid kids making light of their gifts and responsibilities.

      • Dirty30

        Nope, you’re wrong, management is wrong and WD is an idiot.

        Keep playing the plodders Willie and keep pretending you know what you’re doing out there because the one guy who can be on the ice and the opposition isn’t scoring is Jake.

        I don’t care if he’s drinking beer on the ice! As long as he is managing to stop the other team from scoring, this band of hardworking plodders is better for him being there than being in the press box.

        What a crock of crap from Willie.

      • “No professional organisation puts up with overpaid kids making light of their gifts and responsibilities.”

        Evander Kane? Jonathan Drouin? Ryan O’Reilly? Patrick Kane? Tyler Seguin?

        Maybe if Virtanen had a 101 point season two years ago, it would be a different story.

      • Freud

        The Stars put up with overpaid kids making light of their gifts.

        Seguin was bought for pennies and Benning is still enjoying his meat and potatoes with a side order of culture.

        • Bud Poile

          Sorry,Einstein,oops,Freud,but you are in over your head.

          Not only was Benning a 1st round,sixth overall pick but he racked up more points as a d-man in his first year than Jake has produced.Way more.

          Jake-First 65 NHL games played-14 points.

          Jim Benning’s first NHL season:

          74 gp 7g 24a 31 points

          Benning was 18 years old playing d in the old NHL,where pretty boys hanging on model’s arms were found in San Francisco and Hollywood,not with NHL rookies.Jake should eat more meat and potatoes and drink less.

          http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/leagues/seasons/teams/0000381982.html

        • Bud Poile

          Tyler Seguin’s party lifestyle irked Boston Bruins, father says

          Tyler Seguin’s enjoyment of the Boston bar scene didn’t sit well with Bruins and ultimately led to him being traded to Dallas Stars, Paul Seguin says.

          Paul Seguin admits his son enjoys the bar scene and sometimes goes out until 2 or 3 a.m. As a hockey star who is recognized anywhere he goes, his public outings are frequently tweeted out.

          Word, however, got back to the Bruins executive.

          He said the Bruins asked him, “Is there something going on? Are you staying out late? From that moment, they started to lose faith in him.”

  • Fred-65

    Most players that make their way from the AHL to the NHL do so because they dominate at the AHL. Has Virtanen achieved this …from what I gather neither his couple of games this year or prior time during the play-offs ? At what point do we say Jake just show us …for heavens sake just show us you have some thing special. Dave Tomlinson reported at practise in Vcr Jakes the last on and the first off the ice …that doesn’t point to a guy that’s dedicated IMO

    • Killer Marmot

      Virtanen has only 14 games in the AHL, and he was only 18 years old in most of those games.

      Like many early draft picks, he went almost directly from juniors to the NHL.

  • apr

    Lets just trade him for Drouin and call it Hodgson for Kassian Part 2. Or lets just be patient with the guy. I chose the latter, though the former would be quite funny.

  • Rodeobill

    Another benefit of Utica is displacing Virtanen outside of his normal and familiar context.

    It is a law of nature that a change in environment needs one to have to go through the process of re-adapting to a new context and situation. Getting him away from mom’s turkey dinner, drinking buddies, and the whole person he has become in relation to the environment that he has grown up in, could be his best chance for a paradigm shift. In Utica nowhere and no one is familiar. He has to re-adapt, creating new relationships with new people and environments and therein create new understandings of himself inside those relationships.

    Think of how people grow or change when going to the army, or leaving home for university. It is probably one thing that helped Kassian work through his stuff, having to completely re-adapt to a new environment and situation.