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Photo Credit: Vancouver Canucks / Twitter

Analyzing the Odds of Jake Virtanen Developing Into a Top-9 Forward

The free-agency frenzy has long passed with the Canucks emerging once more as active players.

All in all, the team committed just shy of $8-million in annual average value and multi-year commitments for three depth players. The problem? While each of their signings provides varying degrees of grit and defensive acumen, none of them can be relied upon to generate offence.

It’s an issue because three of Vancouver’s top-five scorers from the 2017/18 season opted for greener pastures this offseason. The retirement of both Sedins has coupled with Thomas Vanek’s departure to the Red Wings to leave a void to the tune of 146 points. With these holes comes increased opportunity — something Canucks general manager Jim Benning expects the young players to take advantage of.

“We’ve drafted some real good, young skilled players and we want to give those players a chance to play in the skilled positions on the team,” Benning told reporters following July 1st’s signings.

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Elias Pettersson obviously fits that criteria, but beyond him, there aren’t many young forwards with realistic chances to make the team given its logjam up front.

For next season, it’s going to be up to the likes of Sven Baertschi, Brendan Leipsic and Nikolay Goldobin to bear the responsibility of stepping up to produce in some of these vacated offensive positions. A commonly forgotten name that should be a part of that group is former sixth overall pick, Jake Virtanen.

The 21-year-old winger bounced back reasonably well this year after a dismal showing in the preceding campaign under Willie Desjardins. Virtanen’s performance this season solidified his floor as a legitimate NHL player — proving that he has the physical traits to be an effective forechecker that can tilt the shot clock in the right direction for his team.

But what’s Virtanen’s ceiling at this point? What are the odds that he can develop into a top-nine forward?

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If one were to lean on the “eye test,” the answer would depend entirely on the game one caught him in. There are nights when he flashes the coveted combination of size and speed that drove his high selection, but there are almost just as many contests where his poor hockey sense has him lost on the ice. And while there are signs that he’s improving his consistency under head coach Travis Green, the tangible results belie progression seemingly apparent to the visible eye.

While stats are by no means the be all end all for player evaluation, they’re particularly useful for mapping a player’s potential career path by pitting one’s production against historical comparables. Here at CanucksArmy, this sort of analysis is typically conducted with draft-eligible prospects using Jeremy Davis’s pGPS system, but thanks to Hockey Reference’s database we can conduct a similar study using NHL players. Today, the focus is finding historical comparables for Jake Virtanen to establish a precedence for his odds of developing into a bonafide top-9 forward.

Criteria

There were a few key elements that I wanted to include in my search in addition to just point production. Here are the criteria I settled on when looking at comparable forwards since the 1990-91 NHL season.

  • First-round picks
  • At least 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds(stature data pulled from Elite Prospects)

Draft position was important because I only wanted to include players that were seen as owning high upside and talent when evaluated as junior players. Size is included because power forwards like Virtanen are often thought to take longer to adapt to the NHL playstyle after years of dominating in junior because of a physical advantage.

After that, I adjusted for age, NHL production and position.

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  • Cumulative 0.14-0.3 P/GP from ages 18-21 or 0.19-0.29 P/GP in their age 21 season
  • Minimum 60 NHL games played between ages 18 and 21
  • Winger
  • February 1st used as age cut-off for a season

The Comparables

Searching by the criteria above yielded 13 matches for Virtanen.

There are some intriguing names on this list, so let’s break down some of these comparables.

Successful Top-Nine Forwards(4/10, 40%)

After excluding active players that are still establishing themselves, we’re left with ten comparables. Within that cohort, four of them went on to become bonafide top-nine forwards. For the purposes of this article, players were deemed successful by this label if they had at least four seasons in which they contributed at least 23 points.

23 points sound awfully low, but that’s the benchmark set for third line production from right wingers by this 2011 quasi-study. The article purposely doesn’t take injuries into account, so 23 points are the raw standard, as opposed to what one may expect over a full 82 games.

Three of Virtanen’s comparables cleared this benchmark quite easily, while Brad May met the criteria with five seasons in which he scored more than 23 points.

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It’s easy to become enthralled with the stars among this group, but it’s equally crucial to note the statistical discrepancies present. Max Pacioretty and Shane Doan more than doubled Virtanen’s production rate in the AHL between their age 18 and 21 seasons, while Nino Niederreiter managed to break out with 36 points in the big leagues as a 21-year-old.

May is the closest statistical match among this group, which seems apt given Virtanen’s development arc to date. May’s reputation as a grinder might not make him the most flattering comparable, but many fail to recall that he had two 40+ point seasons in a career riddled with injuries.

Another crucial detail is that all except Shane Doan broke out as 22-year-olds. As such, it’s imperative for Virtanen to make significant strides this coming year if he’s to become a top-nine forward.

Failed Top-Nine Forwards(6/10, 60%)

While the preceding section may have inspired some confidence, the reality remains that more than half of Virtanen’s comparables failed to become top-9 forwards in the NHL.

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Each player’s age 22 season once again served as an indicator for future success(or lack thereof). Five of these six players either saw their scoring rates regress year over year or in the case of Nikita Alexeev and Victor Tikhonov, toiled unsuccessfully in the minors.

Former eighth overall pick Jason Wiemer looks to be the closest statistical match, which is a good sign because he became the best player of the bunch. Wiemer never lived up to his lofty draft expectations, although he did crest 18 points per season on six occasions over his 726 game NHL career.

Other Comparables

As much as I would have liked to include these names as successful top-9 forwards, all of them are young enough that they have yet to meet the criteria I set out. Brett Connolly is the closest to meeting it with three seasons in which he transcended 23 points, though Wilson and Ritchie aren’t far behind with two of their own.

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Needless to say, most would be satisfied should Virtanen follow any of these three players’ footsteps. Connolly and Wilson were key contributors for Washington’s Stanley Cup win, while Ritchie’s prorated scoring pace over the past two seasons has him just shy of 30 points over an 82 game sample.

As it was with some of the other successful comparables, AHL production stands out as a differentiating factor for Ritchie and Connolly.

Conclusion

Virtanen’s statistical matches range from first-line forwards to busts that were out of NHL jobs by their mid-20s. Contextualization of these numbers likely slots Virtanen between the two extremes, similar to some of his other active comparables.

Including those active comparables (Wilson, Connolly, Ritchie) leaves 54% of Virtanen’s comparables as “successful” top-nine forwards. Within that 54%, three also went on to become bonafide top-six players (Pacioretty, Niederreiter, Doan), although these three also happen to have the weakest statistical correlation with Virtanen of the cohort.

All things considered, it’s reasonable to project Virtanen as a decent third-line winger in an optimistic scenario — an outlook that aligns well with the expectations set by the media and fanbase.

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  • Super Pest

    Thank you, Harman. Another hockey fix in a dry summer. Here’s to hoping that his Year 22 sees an explosion of production, otherwise, the odds are against him. I, for one, see maturity setting in and point-production WILL increase. Go Jake! Keep working on those hands this summer.

  • DJ_44

    Interesting analysis. I find Wilson to be an interesting comparable. Jake does not have his nastiness, but Jake showed relatively consistent signs that he can dominate (dog-on-a-bone type dominate) when on the ice.

    His scoring numbers are low for a few reasons. Most importantly, he as to HIT THE NET with his shot. I will double his production if he just hits the net when he shoots. He also had no real power play; hopefully he will get a look this year.

  • apr

    Nice article. I don’t think there’s not enough scrutiny on how much of a total bust Dal Colle and irrelevant Sam Bennett has become. Yes, Nylander and Ehjlers would have been choices according to Captain Hindsight, but the skill set Jake is top notch. From a team that has missed out on Sakic, Yzerman, Benn, Lucic, Weber, etc… – it would have been nearly impossible to pass on the local boy. I still can’t believe the Wild passed up on Brock for Erickson Eck. What the eck were they thinking?

    • Chris the Curmudgeon

      Captain Hindsight? You mean on a website that published article after article in FORESIGHT saying that Virtanen wasn’t the best choice in that slot? That’s not hindsight, it’s a prediction that came true. And Sam Bennett, who has undoubtedly disappointed, has still scored a lot more than Jake has. Agree on Dal Colle.

      The Canucks missed out on Nic Petan too, why didn’t he make your list, because he sucks? Virtanen doesn’t suck, but he’s no Sakic or Yzerman, and taking the local boy is not preferable to taking a superior talent.

      • TheRealPB

        But isn’t the point more that this kind of exercise is always the case when you’re predicting what might happen with 17-18 year olds? There’s predictions that didn’t come to pass — though obviously Ehlers and Nylander would’ve been better selections in this spot. Even looking at those comparables, wouldn’t Buffalo have been a lot happier selecting Keith Tkachuk or Marty Brodeur? Wouldn’t TB really wished they’d taken Tarasenko or Schwartz or Kuznetzov? And when I look back at scouting reports I still see lots of people advocating for other types of players where they got selected. I don’t think it was the local boy thing with Virtanen as much as the size fetish, which they seem to have rightly abandoned since.

      • TD

        I think his point to some degree is that while the website liked Nylanders and Ehjlers, they also liked Bennett and Dal Colle. They would have traded Horvat for Drouin and been wrong on other fronts. Virtanen was a reach at 6 and was correctly called by CA, but their record has other blemishes.

  • wojohowitz

    Are we not getting mixed messages from Benning as in; `We have drafted some skilled young players and want to give them a chance`, or `The young guys have to earn playing time` or `We will make room for anyone who plays well`.

    Pettersson weights 165 lbs. Is he ready? Oh he`s ready no matter what, short of breaking a leg he makes this team.

    Suppose Kole Lind scores 10 goals in 10 exhibition games. Does he make the team? Not a chance.

    Do they make room for Goldobin by putting Gagner on waivers or risk lose Goldobin on waivers? That`s a no-brainer Benning can`t figure out.

    • Killer Marmot

      Almost every waiver-ineligible player will start the season in Utica except maybe Boeser, Pettersson, and Hughes. Perhaps Gaudette if there are a lot of injuries.

      So what’s the point of a player having a great preseason in Vancouver? So that he can be an early call up. That’s what he is competing for.

    • DJ_44

      ….PQW …..shuffling his notes and talking points…….here it is …. posts the standard strawmen …. “mixed messages” ……”Pettersson only weighs”……”risk of losing players on waivers” ….. and then posts them on a thread about Virtanen.

      At least Botchford puts them in some semblance of order.

  • Yes, Virtanen will play. I see his game improving bit by bit, year over year. As he matures, so does his game. Green has to recognize his strength and put him in the right spot. Jake has to reward his coach by doing what he’s told, and not just play the way he wants to play. Putting every player in a position to succeed, makes the puzzle difficult to solve, but it is what it is
    Power forwards take longer to shine.

  • Nuck16

    Jake is an enigma…very difficult to predict. Certain posters for CA were confident that Jake’s ceiling was a 4th liner, but he’s already busted through that ceiling IMO, based on stretches of play from last season. Anything is possible with Jake, if he continues to improve and is able to find consistency. Next Cam Neely? I sure hope so.

  • truthseeker

    I appreciate the article and Jake’s progression is an interesting subject but I really think these comparisons are pretty much useless. Way too many variables go into development (or lack of) of an individual and the sample size is impossibly small.

    Player psychology, the coach, the ability of the team, line mates, ice time, and on and on and on….all are much more important factors than what a handful of similar players did or did not accomplish.

    At the NHL level the vast majority of success, in my opinion, is between the ears. If Jake figures it out he could easily be a top 6 player, let alone a top nine.

    He had 12 minutes of ice a night last season to get him those 10 goals 20 points. In my mind simply giving him 3 to 5 more minutes a night bumps that up to 15 goals and 30ish points by itself. Play him with some better players and that adds another 10 points? I don’t think that is unreasonable.

    Jake just has to keep doing what he’s been doing more recently. His work ethic has obviously improved and he’s started to figure out how to use his size and speed to his advantage. He’s for sure got to dial in the finishing ability. He struggles with that but even a slight improvement of getting stuff on net more consistently could provide a boost on top of those other factors.

    Personally I don’t think the organization or Jake should be satisfied with seeing him as only a “top 9” and should work to get him up higher than that. Part of it is on Green as well. He needs to give Jake some looks with some of the offensive players and maybe some PP time.

    Put him in the right situations and I think Jake can easily become a 40 to 50 point player.

    • Beer Can Boyd

      “At the NHL level the vast majority of success, in my opinion, is between the ears.” Absolutely. Exactly the reason that a little guy like Alex Burrows can have a long and productive career, and a big guy who can fly on skates like Emerson Etem has failed in 4 opportunities to make any impact, and is now playing in Switzerland. This is what Virtanen has to understand, and he showed some very encouraging signs last year.

      • truthseeker

        Probably one of them. But I think we can cut him a bit of slack for that. When he got time with the Sedins originally, it was obvious he wasn’t sure what to do. He still hadn’t seemed to know how to use his speed effectively at that point.

        In a way though, Eriksson with the twins was a bigger disappointment than Jake.

  • Sandpaper

    Good article, just not sure comparing players from that far back is the way too go, as the game has changed significantly since then.
    I understand the sample size woyld be reduced drastically, but, different styles of play during different eras, means different types of players succeed/fail in those eras.
    I believe Jake’s speed alone will allow him to be a successful top 9 at minimum, as he can easily keep up with any player in the league.
    If he were a player assigned to a checking role, on some nights, against the McDavids, Ehlers and Larkins of the league, that alone has high value. IMO.

  • Fred-65

    Wow that’s not a high bar for the 6th O/A pick ….. a top 9 player. You might as well just say it a third line winger. Every one hopes for the best for JV but by now ( he’ll be 22 at the start of the season) it’s not going according to script If he just have shone in the AHL it would be some thing but he didn’t exactly light up that league either. Until he actuallu shows some thing put me down as doubtful, he’s on track for a career of third line contribution

  • Ho Borvat

    I see a lot of fire and pushback in Virtanen and I think once his confidence strengthens you’ll see him be a 15-20 goal per season guy. I also think that he’s not going to let anyone push him around either and can see him starting to drop the mitts like he did in junior, starting this season. People forget that power forwards sometimes take longer to catch their wave because in junior there is far less adversity and it can take longer to make the jump where the physical plane is more equeal. Take Shane Doan for example, .24 ppg in his first 250 NHL games. Jake Virtanen? .24 ppg in his first 140 NHL games. I think the kid is going to be fine. Excited he’s staying and looking forward to see how he grows this upcoming year.

  • Bud Poile

    Every time I read about Jake I look to see if the writer includes his injuries/surgery and how they may have effected his early career to date.
    His hip injury and loan out to the Canadian Junior team following that injury,his subsequent showing at that tournament and how his NHL season adversely unfolded back in Vancouver were critical points of this story.
    Coach Green was tasked with his confidence (and career) to play effectively in the AHL and then NHL.
    Virtanen looked a lost soul until Green guided him back on track.
    This year will prove interesting for fans that enjoyed Hitman Jake’s game.

    • Killer Marmot

      I don’t mind Jason Botchford’s opinions most of the time, but he’s responsible for one of the most classless headlines I’ve ever read when he, or perhaps The Province editors, chose the headline “Goat-medal winner.”

      • Giant-Nation

        Jake has been more focused and bordering on OCD this summer. He dropped is friends and social life almost all together. He has been having lunch once a week with Horvat. I have no idea how his season is about to go but he is freaking dialed in this off season. Don’t bet against Jake this year.

        IMO – this guy will surprise when Canucks enter post season again. His game is post season.

        • liqueur des fenetres

          That’s good to hear because I’m sure his contract negotiation was a rather humbling experience. Hopefully he can use the that chip that’s on his shoulder for good. That being said, hopefully management is ready to give him another real chance because towards the end of last season he was no longer being included in the group of young players on which Linden was pinning the team’s hopes.

        • Killer Marmot

          Prospects are kids. When they enter the NHL, they can get overwhelmed by the money, attention, girls, and so on, and underestimate the dedication it takes to be successful in the NHL.

          The trick for management is dealing with that. Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes not.

  • speering major

    Jakes ceiling is an interesting topic with a lot of variables

    1. His team and line mates have done him no favors
    2. He certainly lacks high end hockey IQ but I suspect part of him looking lost and indecisive out there is confidence. It may be a case where he just takes longer to learn the game and then confidence can also build off of that… or it could be more of the same
    3. He is not getting much ice time or PP time. I don’t think he will get or deserves any PP time but when you combine that with his ice time, team, and linemates, you have to take his point totals with a grain of salt
    4. His skating is high end. Not just speed but also strength. He is able to just flat out go around D and closes the gap fore and backchecking. His skating will take him a long way

    I think Jake will be a top 9 forward but his performance over the next 2 seasons is going to be heavily dependent on ice time and linemates. Those two things are largely out of his control. I think if Jake is given some quality and complimentary linemates he could be a 15+ goal scorer without PP time in the next two seasons. I think he could have success on a line with Sutter and Eriksson. If they stick him with Rousel, Gagner, Beagle, etc I expect him to struggle along with the line.These guys aren’t going to help take his offense to another level. The Canucks have a lot of line combos where offense goes to die. Hopefully the try to stick Jake in a position to succeed before they roll the unskilled vets off the roster

  • TD

    I would like to see Virtanen’s stats broken down into 10 game or quarter season segments. To my eye test, Virtanen got much better in the second half of the season. He seemed to finally figure out his speed during the final 10 games or so. Most of his opportunities did not lead to goals, but I would think the stat line would look different.

    For developing players, there can be a vast difference in the stats in different parts of the year.

  • Holly Wood

    I believe Jake will do very well in a top 9 role this year. Very likely to play up in the top 6 as injuries occur. In 2019 Jake becomes 50- 55 pt forward we have been waiting for.. My hope is that he develops some nasty in his game to go along with that size and speed.