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

Shotgun Jake Or Notgun Jake: Will The Real Virtanen Please Stand Up?

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
October 2018 14 5 2 7 23 18.5% 31 45.12% 12:49
November 2018 14 3 2 5 36 8.3% 22 49.58% 16:33
December 2018 13 3 3 6 33 9.1% 31 44.28% 15:36
January 2019 9 0 1 1 20 0.0% 20 48.37% 14:45
February 2019 6 1 2 3 16 6.3% 12 54.71% 14:33

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.

Virtanen Now

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

  • Jamie E

    I think Jake’s “streakiness” is more attributable to moving away from playing on lines with Pettersson/Horvat and being plunked on a line with Brandon “The Black Hole” Sutter.

  • I’ve been critical of some of your writing in the past but I want to give you props for this. It’s well-researched and you present the data and context for the data very clearly. Good job!

  • Kanuckhotep

    I can’t recall Jake ever having at least one consistent, solid linemate in all of his time with the Canucks never mind two of them. Don’t know if it’s Jake himself trying to figure out what kind of NHLer he is going to be or coaching staffs that don’t know exactly how to use the attributes they drafted him before. He’s got the grit, speed and shot but perhaps it’s up to mgmt to assess how to better implement Virtanen.

  • Kootenaydude

    I like the kid, he’s got good character, but he’s not that great around the net. Not a great playmaker. He’s got great wheels though. I just keep waiting for him to get good. As for him changing teammates all the time. If he played with some consistency he could be on Horvat line. If anyone needs consistent line mates it’s Horvat. Throw the guy a bone for F#*k sakes and give him a couple competent wingers.

  • Fred-65

    Jake …… what you see is what you get. Please no more excuses he’s playing Pro hockey for 4 years, of which 197 are at the NHL level. His NHL stats are 29 + 27 ie 0.28 pts per game. This season, his best yet he showing 0.38 pts per season. He doesn’t play much of an inspired heavy game, although I agree there are flashes and he’s not quick to “engage” with opponents. He is what he is. He’s paid for what he produces, which means he has some financial value I suppose because he agreed to a low ceiling 2 year contract $1.2 mil per season. That contract was agreed to by Jake, his agent and JB

    • Fred-65

      The best thing going for Jake is a very active fan club who keep hyping the what if argument. If he put’s in to gear and starts producing I’ll be the first to give him a pat of the back but I ain’t going to fanaticise about the what if’s

    • I don’t think any 22 year old player “is what he is.” Virtanen is experiencing a breakout season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t improve on it.

      Even if he “is what he is,” I’ll take a 20-goal scorer who can hit in my lineup any day.

  • The Hockey Writers predicted Virtanen’s floor would be a bottom-six, occasional goal scorer because of consistency issues.

    https://thehockeywriters.com/jake-virtanen-the-next-ones-2014-nhl-draft-prospect-profile/

    I’d like to see Virtanen play LW more, it gives him a better angle to cut in with a wrist shot or drive the net. I’m surprised that Green isn’t doing that even though Virtanen’s play improved when he did that when coaching in Utica.

    Virtanen still has the potential to be an agitating complimentary player like Ferland but if he becomes a cost-effective utility player like Hansen, he’d still be a valuable roster player (just not what you’d expect given his pedigree). Not an Ehlers or Nylander but not a Dal Colle either.

  • Doodly Doot

    Another great idea for a piece Stephan. I dig it!

    I have been keen to see Jake spend a consistent period of time (10+ games in a row) with Pete. Since the arrival of Leivo and Green’s interest in playing him on LW with Pete, I think it’s an even better match. Here’s why.

    I see this team with two different yet very complimentary top lines.

    1a Roussel – Horvat – Boeser

    With Boeser as the opposition’s main focus, working the boards when needed and always working to get open for his shot, it allows both Horvat and Roussel a more time and space to do their spade work down low. I think this dynamic makes each of these guys a scoring threat and the line as a whole potent and effective.

    1b Leivo – Pettersson – Virtanen

    Keying-on on breakout passes to either wing, Josh or Jake can gain the offensive zone and feed Pete coming in late. From there he has options with two heavy shots on the wings and his own super-natural skills to move and create. The key is to keep one or both of Leivo and Virtanen constantly moving. Think Sedinery with one super-Sedin and two proto-Burrows. With Pettersson’s (and Green’s!) guidance, this can grow into a powerful combination, unlocking a ton of Jake’s dormant natural scoring potential. I’ve been studying Leivo and have become more and more impressed with his total game, though I can see a path of growth still remains.

    Anyhoot, just a few thoughts. I’d hate to see Jake languish. The story is not fully written on this guy. Most think he’s not living up to his draft position. Green is the perfect coach to get him close. I remain hopeful.

  • Defenceman Factory

    Solid effort Stephan, thank you

    First I’d like to say I want to see Jake as part of the middle 6 on this team for the foreseeable future. He adds a character and dynamic to the team beyond his point contribution. His combination of speed and skill are rare and change the way other teams play.

    Jake lacks the instincts of a good goal scorer although he does show improvement with greater opportunities. He regularly makes less than ideal decisions in the offensive zone and occasionally in the Dzone. He seldom makes huge mistakes anymore. He is a complete beast in the neutral zone.

    The only real inconsistency in the data provided is Jake fluked in a couple extra goals in the fall. The S% is simply the number of shots on net that go in. It doesn’t account for the number of shots that missed the net completely or those that hit the iron. I have to wonder if his low shot rate in January is because he missed the net a few more times. A centimeter here or there on a couple of hit posts and the narrative shifts significantly.

    Jake usually shows a positive balance in takeaway/giveaway numbers. His possession numbers are usually positive and he hits like a truck. I don’t think he realizes just how big a positive impact he has on games when he is going his hardest.

    With a more offensively gifted centre man Jake and Roussel will make a very powerful line and neither one is a big step backwards moving up the line-up to cover for injuries. If Jake gets on a hot streak give the line more minutes.

    The idea should be to have 3 lines that can score. Jake doesn’t belong on the top line but does fit in the middle 6. If the Canucks can develop a high scoring 2nd line Jake probably is on the 3rd line. If the 2nd and 3rd lines are fairly balanced he can play on either. Make him do puck cycling drills till he pukes and make him watch an extra hour of video every time he fails to drive the net when the opportunity presents itself.

    • One quibble–Virtanen does not usually have positive possession numbers. But that does appear to be changing!

      The fact that his Corsi% remained high in January would lead credence to your theory of a lot of missed nets.

  • kermit

    We won’t really know what we have with Jake until this team makes the playoffs. Streaky regular season scoring doesn’t matter if he can be a playoff contributor.