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

Why The Best Is Yet To Come For Jake Virtanen

The truncated 2019/20 NHL season was undoubtedly a breakout campaign for Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks. In just 69 games, Virtanen put up a full slate of career highs – 18 goals, 18 assists, and 36 points – and those totals would only climb higher if the season were to be completed.

The question remains, however – was this the breakout year for Shotgun Jake, or just a breakout year.

It’s a more difficult to answer question that some might assume. Virtanen was 23 years old for the entirety of the season, and that is around the age when most NHL forwards can be expected to hit their prime period of production, which might suggest that he has already reached his peak or will in the very near future.

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But Jake Virtanen isn’t just a forward – he’s a power forward.

And the typical rules of development don’t typically apply to power forwards.

Conventional wisdom holds that players carrying a greater-than-average weight on their frame will need longer to figure out how to use said frame at the NHL level, and it’s a notion that makes a lot of sense.

That’s not something that Vancouver fans need to be reminded about, either, as Todd Bertuzzi already laid down a pretty clear franchise precedent for the unique career path of an oversized, bruising winger.

 

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The Todd Bertuzzi Precedent

Jake Virtanen has been compared to Todd Bertuzzi ever since he was drafted 6th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2014 Entry Draft, and that hasn’t slowed down even now that Virtanen has established himself as an NHL talent in his own right.

But hey, don’t take our word for it – even Bertuzzi himself sees the similarities.

The prospect of Virtanen developing along the same lines as Bertuzzi did has long been touted as a reason for patience and optimism, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Like Virtanen, Bertuzzi entered the league as a first round draft pick with reported NHL-ready size – and then proceeded to flounder.

It wasn’t until the 1999/2000 season, at the age of 24, that Big Bert had his first breakout year – but it wouldn’t be his last.

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Todd Bertuzzi, RW

Playing Weight: 229 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
1995/96 20 76 18 21 39
1996/97 21 64 10 13 23
1997/98 22 74 13 20 33
1998/99 23 32 8 8 16
1999/00 24 80 25 25 50
2000/01 25 79 25 30 55
2001/02 26 72 36 49 85

Bertuzzi’s production jumped again the following season, and then skyrocketed in his 26-year-old campaign, in which he netted 36 goals and 85 points in just 72 games. And after that, he enjoyed a brief stint as one of the best forwards in the game of hockey.

Expecting Virtanen to suddenly develop into a quality first line winger in the next couple of years might be a bridge too far, but there’s still plenty of reason to believe that 2019/20 wasn’t Shotgun Jake’s last breakout season – and plenty of precedent, even beyond Bertuzzi.

 

Case Studies In Slow-Developing Power Forwards

One thing that needs to be stressed when discussing the development of Jake Virtanen is just how unique of a specimen he is. With a playing weight of approximately 226 pounds and an abundance of skill to go with it, Virtanen is the sort of forward who just doesn’t come along very often.

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Over the past two decades, only 27 other right wingers have managed to do what Virtanen has thus far in the NHL – as in, play at least 200 games and put up more than 90 points with a playing weight greater than 200 pounds.

If one adds left wingers to the mix, we’re still left with just 61 total wingers – and much of that list is composed of long-term enforcers like Donald Brashear and Todd Fedoruk.

All of which means that the list of true comparables for Jake Virtanen is relatively miniscule, and represents a very small sample size. But even among that limited crowd, there’s a recurring theme of power forwards hitting their prime at a later age than the average NHL forward – which might mean that the best is yet to come for Virtanen, too.

Below, we’ve collected a handful of case studies to illustrate the point.

John LeClair, LW

Playing Weight: 233 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
1991/92 22 59 8 11 19
1992/93 23 72 19 25 44
1993/94 24 74 19 24 48
1994/95 25 46 26 28 54
1995/96 26 82 51 46 97

LeClair is the most famous name on this list, and with good reason, but even he took longer than usual to get fully rolling at the NHL level. LeClair needed four full seasons in the NHL and a trade to Philadelphia to finally start putting up the point totals he was capable of –  and he didn’t fully break out until the age of 25.

 

Bill Guerin, RW

Playing Weight: 220 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
1992/93 21 65 14 20 34
1993/94 22 81 25 19 44
1994/95 23 48 12 13 25
1995/96 24 80 23 30 53
1996/97 25 82 29 18 47
1997/98 26 59 18 21 39
1998/99 27 80 30 34 64

If not for the existence of Todd Bertuzzi, Guerin might be the poster boy for the slow-and-steady development curve of a power forward. Though he put up fairly impressive numbers early on in his career, Guerin was notoriously inconsistent and didn’t put together a truly strong campaign until the age of 27. And he only got better from there, with the best seasons of his career coming at the ages of 29 and 32.

 

Alex Kovalev, RW

Playing Weight: 222 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
1992/93 19 65 20 18 38
1993/94 20 76 23 33 56
1994/95 21 48 13 15 28
1995/96 22 81 24 34 58
1996/97 23 45 13 22 35
1997/98 24 73 23 30 53
1998/99 25 77 23 30 53
1999/00 26 82 26 40 66
2000/01 27 79 44 51 95

Most don’t think of Kovalev as a power forward, but that’s their mistake. The uber-skilled winger could always dish it out when he wanted to – just ask Darcy Tucker. But Kovalev did take an excessively long time to put his package of size and ability together, something that finally clicked at the age of 27 after a couple of years in Pittsburgh. Some of Kovalev’s earlier woes were reportedly the result of an attitude issue, but that’s also coming from the mouth of Mike Keenan – so consider the source.

 

Blake Wheeler, RW

Playing Weight: 225 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
2008/09 22 81 21 24 45
2009/10 23 82 18 20 38
2010/11 24 81 18 26 44
2011/12 25 80 17 47 64
2012/13 26 48 19 22 41
2013/14 27 82 28 41 69
2014/15 28 79 26 35 61
2015/16 29 82 26 52 78

Moving into the modern era, Wheeler makes for an interesting Jake Virtanen comparable. True, Wheeler has always been a more productive player than Virtanen since entering the league, but he didn’t transform into an elite talent until the 2012/13 season at the age of 26 – and his scoring has actually taken several big steps forward since then as he’s entered his early 30s. Wheeler is yet another power forward whose best years have come long after his prime was supposedly completed.

 

Tom Wilson, RW

Playing Weight: 220 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
2013/14 19 82 3 7 10
2014/15 20 67 4 13 17
2015/16 21 82 7 16 23
2016/17 22 82 7 12 19
2017/18 23 78 14 21 35
2018/19 24 63 22 18 40

Wilson is the most contemporary comparable for Virtanen, just a year older and one step ahead in the development path. Wilson’s entire story is yet to be told, but just like Virtanen he broke out at 23 years old – and then he took another leap forward the following year. At the very least, it bodes well for Virtanen’s chances in the 2020/21 season, whenever that occurs.

 

What Does It Mean For Shotgun Jake?

There are plenty of similarities between Jake Virtanen’s first five years in the league and the earliest days of the power forwards listed above.

Jake Virtanen, RW

Playing Weight: 226 lb

Season Age Games Goals Assists Points
2015/16 19 55 7 6 13
2016/17 20 10 0 1 1
2017/18 21 75 10 10 20
2018/19 22 70 15 10 25
2019/20 23 69 18 18 36

Of course, this does not mean that Virtanen is guaranteed to blossom into a dominant top line power forward. That list of 61 comparables included plenty of individuals – including Canuck favourites Taylor Pyatt and Steve Bernier – who never really figured it out. The players listed above represent a ceiling for Virtanen, not an expected outcome, and it would be unfair to hold him to such lofty standards.

But it is also evidence that judging the development of Virtanen thus far against the typical expectations for an NHL forward is also unfair. He’s a unique sort of talent, and he should be assessed accordingly – as a work in progress, not a finished product.

What it means is that believing that Jake Virtanen will continue to increase his scoring production over the next few seasons isn’t just hopeful or overly optimistic, it’s in keeping with hockey history.

And these days, we could all use a little something extra to believe in.