After a goalless January that included nine games and only a single assist, the real Jake Virtanen appears to be back—or is he? With a goal and two assists in six February games thus far, the man they call Shotgun Jake has already topped his previous career highs and has almost gotten back on track for a 20-goal pace. It’s clear that Virtanen has now firmly established himself as an NHL player, but it’s also true that his streakiness has made it tough to define exactly what kind of NHL player he’s going to be in the long run.
Below, we’ll break down the differences between Shotgun Jake and Notgun Jake—using stats and the eye test to try to determine what separates his good streaks from his bad ones. Overall, we’re trying to answer the question of what the Vancouver Canucks can expect from Virtanen moving forward.
The Varied Calendar Of Jake Virtanen
|Jake Virtanen||Games||Goals||Assists||Points||Shots||Shooting %||Hits||SAT%||Average TOI|
We’re going to tackle this one in chronological order.
First and foremost, it should be clear by now that the high-scoring Jake Virtanen of October—the version that inspired the #ShotgunJake movement—is not the Virtanen that fans can expect to see on a consistent basis moving forward. With a shooting percentage more than double his percentage in any other month this season—and more than double his career average—Virtanen was undoubtedly experiencing a certain degree of luck in October. Him continuing to score at a 30-goal pace was never in the cards.
What we saw from Virtanen in the next two months, however, definitely seems sustainable. While his goal-scoring and shooting percentage dipped, his point production remained relatively consistent and he was rewarded with a more regular shift by coach Travis Green. His Corsi remains all over the map, but that’s a result of Virtanen’s ever-changing linemates more than anything.
January was a dreadful month for Virtanen in terms of scoring, but all of the other parts of his game remained relatively strong. His possession metrics actually improved greatly from his December numbers, his icetime was steady, and he continued to throw hits at the same rate. One noticeable difference is that #JanuaryJake shot the puck much less frequently than he did in other months—aside from October, when every puck he threw at the net seemed to go in—to the tune of almost one shot less per game. His January shooting percentage of 0.0% is obviously an anomaly, but he also didn’t give himself as many chances to score as he had in previous months.
In February, Virtanen has started shooting again and saw his possession numbers skyrocket as a result—though his scoring rate has yet to fully rebound. His current February shooting percentage of 6.3% is a little low given his 2018/19 and career averages, which suggests that the best is yet to come for the February version of Virtanen.
In the past, Virtanen has been criticized for taking too many shots—many of which are on low-percentage opportunities—but the numbers seem to point toward Virtanen being a volume shooter. The more he shoots, the more he scores—which might seem painfully obvious at first, but has a little more meaning when it comes to this particular player. Shotgun Jake seems to be at his best when he’s shooting (and hitting) with somewhat reckless abandon, and not worrying all that much about shot selection. Some players just need to run wild to be successful, and Virtanen might be one of them.
On the whole, these stats reflect that Virtanen hasn’t really been all that inconsistent in the 2018/19 season. His goal-scoring is the only component of his game that has been streaky, and that’s actually to be expected—as we’ll explain in the next section.
The Reality Of Streakiness
One of the aspects of hockey that is most difficult for fans to understand is the concept of streakiness—especially for those fans, like this author, who struggle with math. Fortunately, Jake Virtanen presents a perfect case study to help explain how the mathematics of streaky play work.
If Virtanen continues to be a consistent 20-goal scorer, we can expect him to continue to be streaky. If he were a perfectly regular scorer on a 20-goal pace, he would bury one every four games—but hockey rarely works in perfect patterns.
If a player scores at a 20-goal pace throughout an entire season, each “hot streak”—meaning a period of time in which they’re scoring at a rate higher than one goal every four games—will have been balanced by an equal cold streak. A two-goal game will have been counterbalanced by six games without a goal.
As such, streakiness is a reality for all but the greatest NHL goal scorers. Unless Virtanen drastically increases his scoring rate, it’s probably wise to expect him to always remain streaky—and to learn to take the bad times with the good.
|Jake Virtanen||Goals-Per-Game And NHL Rank Among Forwards||Points-Per-Game And NHL Rank Among Forwards||Quality of Teammates (Based on TOI)||Quality of Competition (Based on TOI)|
|2018/19||0.21 (169th)||0.39 (222nd)||29.58||29.27|
In the roughest of terms, there are approximately 93 top-line forwards, 186 top-six forwards, and 279 top-nine forwards in the NHL at any given time. Based on those unscientific metrics, Jake Virtanen is still putting up points at a solid middle-six pace despite his ice-cold January—and despite the fact that his quality of linemates remains inconsistent at best.
His goal-scoring, on the other hand, is at the low-end of top-six production. In other words, Virtanen is already scoring goals at the sort of rate that would be expected from a second-line winger—albeit, with a relatively low quality of competition—and one gets the feeling that he’s still got a lot of untapped potential.
Virtanen In The Future
Predictive models and age curves for NHL production are controversial—as this author discovered while discussing the future of Sven Baertschi last week—but most would agree that, at 22 years old, Jake Virtanen has yet to hit his prime years of production. We can expect Virtanen’s goal-scoring and point production to increase over the next few years so long as his icetime and opportunities remain consistent—and under coach Travis Green, that seems likely to be the case.
This means that it is entirely possible that Virtanen continues to evolve his game to the point where he’s a legitimate top-six option for the Vancouver Canucks. Even when Shotgun Jake went cold in January, he still continued to make a generally positive impact on the ice—which should ensure that he maintains a spot in the lineup throughout his inevitable scoring droughts. Virtanen may not ever be all that regular or consistent of a goal-scorer, but he certainly looks primed to keep scoring in bunches for the Canucks for years to come.12