66
Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

CanucksArmy Year in Review: Jake Virtanen

In a lot of ways, this year was a big step forward for Canucks winger Jake Virtanen. That’s hard to reconcile with given the paltry 20 points (10 goals and assists alike) Virtanen earned over the course of his 75-game season, but you have to remember where he was a year ago.

Virtanen wasn’t even in Vancouver. Then-Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins made sure of it by early-November, sending the vexing youngster to the Utica Comets after an ignominious ten game stint in which he registered a single point and looked generally lost. That’s where his season ended, with a lowly, concerning even, 19 points in 65 games.

Many started to wonder whether Virtanen would ever get his career back on track.

Expectations were adjusted accordingly. It was no longer a question of whether Virtanen could be an impactful power forward for the Canucks; it was about whether he could contribute to the Canucks period — at least in the short term.

The team itself never flinched. And in newly minted head coach Travis Green, Virtanen had perhaps his biggest believer among them for a boss — the very same coach that oversaw Virtanen’s first season in the AHL.

Green’s tough love approach to Virtanen didn’t produce immediate results in Utica, but from the moment the Canucks reunited them in training camp, it became clear that the pair had laid the groundwork for a fruitful full-time return to the NHL.

It was Virtanen though who built on that foundation to make the Canucks roster out of training camp. With six points (four goals and two assists) in two games to accompany strong two-way and transitional numbers, Virtanen made the decision an easy one for the Canucks.

The production tailed off as the stakes mounted, but Virtanen found other ways to contribute to the Canucks’ cause in the regular season. In an article I wrote for The Athletic Vancouver, I explored some of the many ways in which his speed created offensive zone time for his linemates through the first six weeks of the season — a trend that held right to the year’s conclusion.

Not only does Virtanen have a healthy ratio of controlled entries to uncontrolled (55 per cent to 45 per cent) at even strength, but he’s skating the puck into the opposition zone more frequently than he did the last time we had this data at our disposal two seasons ago. Virtanen’s bringing the puck into the offensive zone with control 19.7 times/60.

Right around that same time, CanucksArmy’s own Jeremy Davis wrote an article exploring how Virtanen’s speed was forcing the opposition to take penalties at an elevated rate relative to other forwards.

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.

The linemates, ice-time and leverage changed for Virtanen as the season carried on, but the results, underlying and boxscore alike, were almost alarmingly consistent right to the bitter end. Here’s the points breakdown for Virtanen by month: three, three, three, two, four, four, one; Virtanen had ten points before the All-Star game and ten points after it, too (albeit in differently sized game samples).

If the NHL were a just league, Virtanen’s production would’ve jumped significantly as his season progressed though. By about December, Virtanen had started to drive the net on rare occasions when the opportunity presented itself; by February, Virtanen was creating his own opportunities by bull-rushing through the opposition to create chances like a real power forward.

As you can see from the above chart, the quality and frequency of Virtanen’s shots were such that his expected goal output was trending towards a 20 goals per 82 games pace. Had his shooting percentage kept pace, that might’ve reflected in Virtanen’s goal totals.

All of this bodes well for Virtanen elevating his game from that of an every day NHL’er to perhaps a middle-six contributor in time for next season. It’s a reasonable conclusion to reach based on Virtanen’s progression through last year.

Then again, as The Province’s Jason Botchford pointed out in a late-season Provies, Virtanen’s numbers were eerily similar to those posted in his rookie season almost right across the board. In fact, the numbers Botchford referenced were all better in his rookie season save for his goals and points per hour.

The fear with Virtanen, going back to his draft, was that there were limitations to the heights he could reach based on the missing elements from his game. One scout I spoke to during his rookie season thought he was already close to his ceiling.

For all Virtanen’s physical gifts, and they are legion, the fact remains that his hockey sense now is where it was two or three years ago. There are signs that he might overcome this deficiency, but for now, that’s it. The burden is on Virtanen to convince us otherwise — colour me cautiously optimistic.

It bears mentioning, though, that we shouldn’t lose track of the qualities already present in Virtanen’s game. He’s a reliable two-way contributor, and his work in the neutral zone is masterful. Whether Virtanen ultimately reaps the rewards of his diligence or not, it’s his play that is consistently creating an environment for his team to outscore the opposition. If Virtanen can add a finisher’s touch, that’d be icing on the cake.

  • DogBreath

    Great article, JD. Good, balanced assessment (IMO). I’ve been critical of you guys for holding on to tired narratives, so good to see this one is still evolving.

    It’s interesting that his numbers this past year are very similar to year 1. Clearly the last 20-30 games you could see early signs that he ‘got it’. The things he does well (particularly speed, hits and an attack mindset) clearly had an impact on games. The question becomes if this in fact true, why don’t the stats align tell the story of his emerging game?

  • Killer Marmot

    Part of it is finding the right line combinations. Virtanen’s most common line mates this season were the Sedins, but it didn’t really click. He spent much of the rest of the season with Boucher, Gaunce, Dowd, and Granlund, not the sort of lineups who are going to pump up your stats.

    Some fast-skating middle-six line mates with more offensive wattage would help. Perhaps him and Gaudette might mesh well.

  • Burnabybob

    The Canucks have a deep enough stable of winger prospects- Lind, Dahlen, Goldobin, Gadjovich, to name a few – that they probably won’t need Virtanen to become a major offensive contributor. His career will probably be as an energy line player who chips in a goal now and then. As long as he isn’t a defensive liability, that should be fine.

  • Cageyvet

    Since there’s no statistic for hockey sense, and everything else is starting to come around, I’m going to stay optimistic. I think his footspeed is faster than his hockey mind right now, but at least he’s now learning on the job in the NHL, not the AHL. Linemates with some players make a huge difference, put him with other guys who can keep up with him on the ice and let’s see what happens.

  • Beer Can Boyd

    Todd Bertuzzi turned 25 years old in the first season that he scored 20+ goals. Boy, I sure am glad all you stats guys already have Jakes ceiling as a goal scorer figured out for him.

      • argoleas

        Always thought that any Bertuzzi comparison is most useful when used as a guide to the possibility of being a late-bloomer. Virtanen will test that possibility for the next two seasons of what I assume will be a bridge deal.

      • truthseeker

        Nobody is saying Jake will be Bert. What we’re saying is stop judging books by their covers.

        You’re the same people who were limiting Bo’s potential and capping him as a 3rd line/maybe 2nd line center.

        NHL players are un pre dic ta ble. All the stats in the world, while interesting and sometimes relevant, cannot measure the human condition.

      • LTFan

        Nucks 16 – my thoughts exactly – JV is an enigma. For where he was picked in the Draft I expected he would have more of an impact for the Canucks. IMO he will never produce the number of points that Bertuzzi did, even with a #1 or 2 Center. That being said I am hoping he can chip in 10 to 15 goals next season and continue to be a strong defensive player. As everyone has commented, he has good speed, a strong shot and size.

        • Holmes

          He’s a Tom Wilson-type without the toughness, but maybe faster. Not a terrible place to be. In fact, I recall Wilson challenging Jake to drop the mitts and no dice. If Bieska was around to tutor Jake in the dark art of hockey fighting, then we’d have full value on the sixth overall pick

    • Dirk22

      Stats guys? Have you watched Virtanen play? Have you watched Bertuzzi? They have essentially nothing in common except for size. Got any other lazy comparisons?

      • Beer Can Boyd

        I never compared them as players, I merely pointed out that judging a player on their performance at age 21 does not necessarily reflect what they will become as they mature. And that judging by the article above,the stats guys seem to have pre-determined Virtanens ceiling as a scorer.

        • The_Blueline

          Maybe you should stop labeling CA writers as stat guys. This article clearly qualifies the ceiling statements as probably, but not certain. So even JD implies that he might exceed those expectations. Also, the article is not solely based on stats analysis, but also on the author’s opinion of seeing Jake, and he even included quotes from a scout (who, be ready, watch hockey games).

          • Dirk22

            That’s exactly what any predictions based on analytics are: trying to predict the most likely scenario. He used these stats to say Virtanen ‘could’ have scored at 20 goals/year based on some of his underlying numbers. Is that unreasonable based on what you saw?

            The anti-stats guys arguments are getting pretty tiresome don’t you think? To pretend like the author has put an absolute ceiling on Virtanen is just being willfully ignorant for the sake of a argument that ended 5 years ago.

  • Virtanen reminds me of Stockton/Malone: they only used the pick-and-roll but played it to perfection. Virtanen may only have a few tools in his toolkit (i.e. blazing speed, lethal wrist shot, hits like a raging bull) but if he can learn to apply those tools on every shift, he can be a very effective Top 9 forward. As defencemen get smaller, Virtanen can use his size and speed to beat them.

    • argoleas

      It will be up to Green to utilize him in the best place. Him w/ Sedins did not work, but a line w/ him and Gaudette and Leipsic should. Others have suggested being LW on Bo’n’Flow, which may work, but I wonder if a possession/playmaker like Goldy is not a better fit.

      In the future, when Pettersson shifts to the middle, could have him w/ Dahlen and Virtanen.

      Time will tell.

  • DeL

    I’d like to see the Canucks play him with Gaudette and Leipsig to see if there is any chemistry there; could make for a very effective third line, a couple of players with decent 200 ft. games and a scoring winger.

    • Chris the Curmudgeon

      It’s not a bad idea, with Eriksson-Sutter-Gaunce as the 4th. Only problem is that you have Gagner, Motte and Granlund still under contract, and none is really a top 6 forward. Considering how well Leipsic played with Horvat and Boeser during a brief stint last year, he might be a good candidate to be bumped up, with someone like Eriksson (slow, but very defensively responsible) slotting in there instead. Baertschi-Pettersson-Goldobin might be a little soft as 2nd lines go though.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    Good, fair article on an often divisive player, JD. It’s almost a little unfortunate for Jake that he got selected where he did: if we pick him in the 20’s or 30’s, for instance, his fast and boisterous game make him an easy choice for fan favourite, but because he went 6th he will always get the “shoulda drafted X” treatment. I think now that the narrative has changed away from what Jake V isn’t to what he is, it’s refreshing to be able to once again count on him to be an NHL player of some value, and he took big steps in that direction this year. Hopefully Jake continues to take big strides and can develop into a consistent and reliable middle roster energy guy, with some ability to pitch in on both special teams and to hit the scoresheet sometimes too. Considering where he was a year ago, you gotta be happy with that progress.

  • Dirty30

    While not the skill guy everyone dreamed of drafting, I still believe having Jake, Bo and Brock coming at you with the puck isn’t something opposing teams would look forward to defending.

    Even if that line just draws a penalty, then you slot in the skill guy.

    Guy like Nylander gets you to the playoffs, but he seemed to vanish when he got there. JV looks like he would relish the added competition.

    And JD — very much enjoyed this version of your writing! Very well done and appreciated!

    • argoleas

      At this point we have to start ignoring the mistake of taking him 6th above Ehlers and Nylander and just focus on what he brings and potentially will bring. We should see what he can bring to the playoffs hopefully soon. I do agree that he has elements that could prove very beneficial in a 7-game series, similar to what Wilson does now (minus the idiocy, of course).

  • wojohowitz

    He was drafted sixth overall because of his physical play, his speed and also his 45 goals so the mystery is; what happened to his wrist shot which seems to have disappeared. The solution from what I have noticed is he is more comfortable on the rush on his off wing. When he cuts to the middle he could use his wrist shot in the slot, but management seems to disagree. Put him on left wing with Horvat and Boeser and we have a dominate first line where thirty goals for each is just a beginning.

    • I also think it’s a better spot for him because he’ll be on his forehand when he cuts and drives the net after beating the defender. He can try a wrist shot in close or try to stuff it past the goaltender. Green knows about Virtanen and the off-wing because when they were in Utica, Green switched JV to LW and his game improved noticeably.

    • Bud Poile

      ….so the mystery is; what happened to his wrist shot which seems to have disappeared?Wojo
      Shoulder injury/surgery.
      Took a couple of years to get his mojo back,is my uneducated guess.
      Besides,Wojo rhymes with mojo.

  • speering major

    The eye test tells me he has the physical tools to be a top line forward and the hockey sense of 3rd or 4th liner. Hopefully the lack in decision making can be attributed to confidence issues and slower learning curve rather than a ceiling.

    I think with the right linemates, some confidence, and time to learn the game, Jake can be a high end 3rd liner with the potential to fit in on a second line when called upon. His skating is undeniable and he made some nice passes down the stretch which showed a skilled side to his game. If Jake can keep driving the play and SOG differential then a 15 goal season without a role on the powerplay is a valuable asset. I think that’s realistic in the next season or two. The real question is can the Canucks put him in a situation to succeed. I’m not it’s fair to play him with some of the bums the Canucks have floating around

  • LAKID

    Oh how the tune in the song changes! Not long ago Virtanen was dog crap an AHL player at best and you guys wanted him outta here. Reality seems to have registered that Virtanen is an AHL player playing on an AHL talented team. Benning should trade him while you think his value is high and you might get a 4th round pick for him or another good AHLer.

  • Gampbler

    As I watch the finals, I think of Virtanen as one of the few Canucks that would actually fit in quite well, with the speed and style of play needed. At 21, he’s still very much a kid and with 140 games in the NHL, outside of where he was picked and who else the Canucks could have chosen, I’m not sure that we could ask any more from him at this point in his career. He’ll break 20 goals at some point in the NHL, if he stays healthy. I think I’d prefer in hindsight, Virtanen over Bennett (4th), Dall Colle(5th) and Fleury(7th) from 2014. Even Ehlers(9th)looked a little exposed in the playoffs, so the spread isn’t as wide as it was IMO.

  • Kneedroptalbot

    I’m really looking forward to seeing Leipisic, Goldobin, and Virtanen this year. I thought they all played their best hockey as toward the end of last season.

  • TD

    Hopefully with Goldobin, Gaudette, Leipsic, Pettersson et al in the line up this year, Virtanen will have better linemates to play with. He didn’t mesh with the Sedins and had limited quality to play with the rest of the year. Some pp time may add some points and confidence.

    • Cageyvet

      More 3 on 3 time as well, thankfully he worked his way into that spot by the end of the season. Add some 4 on 4 time as well. With his rush ability it’s a good time to get him on the ice, he’s not lazy about backchecking when the play reverses, and has the speed to catch guys.

  • bobdaley44

    Not many can skate or hit like that. There were a few games last year where you could see he can dominate and was by far the best player on the ice. It’s going to take a little more time to figure it out but he’s going to be a valuable asset. Watching the playoffs guys like Tom Wilson are elevating their game whereas Ehlers, who all say we should have picked, vanished. I’m sure opposing defencemen would rather have Ehlers or Nylander coming at them in a seven game series than a bull like Jake.

    • Dirk22

      If we’re going to move on as a fan base and accept that the pick wasn’t the greatest decision we need to stop with these hot takes. Virtanen will be fine…..however, he isn’t as valuable as an Ehlers or a Nylander, unless you’re willing to say Virtanen is more important than someone like Pettersson and Boeser. Sounds a bit silly right?

      • Bud Poile

        Jake weighs 40 more pounds than Nylander and 51 more pounds than Ehlers.
        If you’re watching the SCF and you think of Ovi and the wrecking ball crew of VGK’s then it’s pretty obvious how important Virtanen is when he matures.
        If we’re honest and moving on,that is.

        • Dirk22

          Im getting dumber every time I have to reply to one of your comments.

          Virtanen also weighs 40 pounds more than Boeser and 60 lbs more than Pettersson. I’ll let you piece that together.

          Vegas’ best player is also 5’9 172 lbs.

          And yes, before you start, there is a need for big heavy players too.

          • Bud Poile

            Yeah,I do agree with dumb and getting dumber.
            Vegas’ best player-hands down-is Fleury.
            You’re presumably talking about 175 lb. Marchessault who got flattened during his -2, 0 pt. performance in game 2 of the final.
            Meanwhile,Orpik took a vicious slash and 15 stitches while Kuznetsov was hit so hard nobody said he would play again.
            Neither Capital complained.
            Movin’ on.

          • Ser Jaime Lannister

            JV is looking like a great pick at 6th overall look at all the guys under performing in that draft, JV is a phenomenal athlete and oozes potential. JB said he was going to take longer, and hes gotten better each year and will continue to grow.

            Not sure why you keep bringing up the Nylander comparison its hilarious, wtf has he done without Austin Matthews? Absolutely nothing, guy is invisible most nights when hes not playing with him. Oh and what a great playoff performance by him! typical soft european perimeter player ….yeah ill pass Canucks have enough of those guys.

  • Rodeobill

    Jake can take the zone, blow the D (phrasing?) and cut to the net. He either goes front or around depending on position of the defender, but he almost always gets to one of those two places. He has a hard time finishing but usually gets a shot of some kind, but there the play ends. Green needs someone fast enough to get to the net for those rebounds and greasy goals. He can be a very useful player if he has line mates that can keep up and play to his strengths. Coaching instructions should be easy for him… Take the zone, go to the net. No score? Retrieve puck and repeat flow chart.

    • canuckfan

      I think Jake is working to build strength this summer as well as work on his agility and shot. If he completes one out of 7 of those rushes where he goes around the net or drives to the front he will get 20 goals. But if Green is able to find a garbage man to finish Jakes great rush off that player will get a ton of goals and Jake could end up being the assist leader. He is becoming a fun player to watch, though a bit frustrating when he can’t finish.
      I would like to see him with a couple other fast skaters they could get in the zone and just buzz around the opposing teams end and if someone on the line could finish could take some heat off the top line.
      I see Jake soon becoming a fan favourite he has flash and personality.
      Gaudette and Eriksson may be a good fit. Eriksson scored all those goals in Boston knocking in shots left on the doorstep just as Jake leaves them.