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.
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.
Travis Green on Jake Virtanen 1/ pic.twitter.com/AqDLZW9kVu
— Ben Birnell (@OD_Birnell) November 13, 2016
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
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.
Virtanen looked miles better than Friday, seemed like he’d been set loose. 6 shots on net,but I had him for 12 shots total(2 miss,4 blocked)
— Jeremy Davis (@jeremydavis89) November 13, 2016
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
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
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
That play is exactly why I find his recall so frustrating.
You can’t possibly tell me that Virtanen couldn’t benefit from spending some time in a league where he can potentially dominate
— Jeremy Davis (@jeremydavis89) November 15, 2016
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.
— Jeremy Davis (@jeremydavis89) November 15, 2016
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.
asked why JV18 is back after 2 gms if he’s not playing, willie said: he didn’t have his stuff on road & couldn’t leave him there w/o stuff
— Jason Botchford (@botchford) November 15, 2016
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.