Early regular season Jake Virtanen and pre-season Jake Virtanen bear some resemblances, but they clearly haven’t been the same players – at least, not yet.
The four goals and six points that Virtanen provided in six exhibition contests were enough to ensure his spot on the team, at least in conjunction with responsible two-way play and some physicality.
While the latter two aspects have persisted through the early regular season, the production has yet to manifest itself. Through the Canucks’ first six games, he has no points (one of only three players that have dressed to do so, the others being Erik Gudbranson and Markus Granlund), as well as one healthy scratch. Between that scratch and the fact that head coach Travis Green has mostly been stapling Virtanen to the bench in third periods, indications are that the Canucks coaching staff is still looking for more from the 21-year old.
That’s a major reason why he’s gone from averaging 13:42 in the preseason to just 8:42 in the regular season, the lowest on the Canucks by a healthy amount.
One of the most significant talking points when it comes to Virtanen this calendar year is Green’s instruction to him to keep moving his feet. Nearly every interview with – or article about – Virtanen in which the topic of what he has to do to have success is broached, moving his feet is one of the central focuses, like in this Province article from March of this year:
Details in Virtanen’s game — reading plays, moving his feet, using his size and and not being a defensive liability — have improved under demanding Comets coach Travis Green.
I think Greener was always on me, showing me video constantly of clips where he said I could be moving my feet here. Always little details that he would show me that I wouldn’t really realize at the moment, but after he’d show me and I’d start to get in those habits — going hard all the time, moving my feet right when I get the puck, and even without the puck getting to open space. Just little things like that. Little habits, little details.
The Province’s Jason Botchford used the October 14th edition of The Provies to break down some video examples of not moving his feet the game that may have contributed to his healthy scratch against the Calgary Flames.
While I think Virtanen’s play has been strong enough to warrant better ice time than he’s played to this point, I certainly understand why Green is ingraining this “keep your feet moving” credo so deeply in his young player’s brains: because it leads to good things.
That is clearly the case for Virtanen, who, despite not scoring any points so far, has benefited his team by using his speed to draw penalties and put them on the man advantage. He’s managed to do this four times so far, tied for the most among Canucks, despite having the lowest average time-on-ice on the team.
In each case, Virtanen’s speed was a significant factor in defenders taking penalties to try to slow him down: going through or around defencemen, beating players back to negate icing calls, cutting inside.
All this he has managed to accomplish in just 39 five-on-five minutes of ice. This has given him an imposing 6.02 penalties drawn per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which is actually the fifth highest rate in the entire NHL.
While Virtanen’s draw rate is better this year than ever before, he hasn’t been a slouch in that area in seasons past either. Since breaking into the League, he has drawn penalties at a rate of 1.52 per hour. That may seem low relative to the above list, but those are likely to come down a little. The highest mark from 2015-16 to present is Jared Boll at 3.86 (minimum 200 minutes played). Virtanen’s career total is in the 93rd percentile in this sample, meaning that he draws more minor penalties than 93% of NHL players. That’s legitimately impressive.
Now, under standard approximations, you earn a goal for about every five penalties drawn. The Canucks, however, have been a pretty poor power play team for the past couple of seasons, and so far this year they’ve started off just as slow. Over the first six games, they’ve converted at a rate of 12.9%, which is 25th in the NHL. At that rate, you’d have to draw eight minor penalties for one goal.
For the most part, being on the power play also means there’s a period of time that you’re less likely to surrender a goal. That is probably still true, despite the Canucks allowing two shorthanded goals in the first four games. At 5-on-4 they’re allowing 2.53 goals per hour, which is the fourth highest rate in the league, but there’s been some bad luck/spotty goaltending at play, as they’re 5-on-4 Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes is only 0.59, the ninth lowest in the league. At 5-on-5 they’re allowing 2.37 goals per hour (2.18 expected), which is right about league average.
Once they get their power play sorted out (assuming they do at some point), they’ll be better able to take advantage of the situation that Virtanen puts them in. If he continues playing like he has – that is, continues moving his feet – he’ll continue to provide value that goes beyond individual production. Of course, individual production would be nice too, but I do think that’ll come as a result of the same style of play that is drawing penalties. It worked for him in the preseason, and it should work again here.
Virtanen also hasn’t taken any penalties this season, which is good because there are many players that offside their ability to draw penalties by taking plenty of their own. There are players like Dorsett that draw a ton of penalties, but a large proportion of them are offsetting or major penalties. There are no inherent benefits to those (other than Dorsett being off the ice for a period of time).
At HockeyViz.com, we can find this chart of non-offsetting minor penalties drawn and taken. Virtanen is in the ideal spot, pacing the team in penalties drawn, while never putting his team shorthanded.
All of this is before we even get into Virtanen’s underrated two-way play, which I won’t spend much time on here. It has, however, been well documented that he was among the team’s best possession players in his rookie year, and despite poor numbers in limited NHL time in 2016-17, he did have strong shot shares in the AHL last season according to Hockey Data Inc. This season, he’s once again one of the team’s better players in that regard. A lot of this has to do with his relentless pursuit of the puck, both in the offensive zone and in his own zone. He backchecks faster and more efficiently that most of his teammates, and he’s a seriously disruptive forechecker when he’s on his game.
All in all, I believe that Virtanen needs to get more ice time. He’s a more responsible player than he seems to get credit for, and he brings a skillset that no one else on the team possesses in such quantity: that flat out speed that forces opponents to break the rules to slow him down. That alone should be worth getting him on the ice more often.
All advanced stats (with exception of HockeyViz chart) taken from Corsica.hockey.