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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s make or break time for Jake Virtanen

A local boy coming home to help turn his boyhood team around. What a great story, surely Hollywood was going to snatch up the rights for the movie.

General manager Jim Benning’s first-ever draft pick was a local kid from Abbotsford. Listed at 6 feet 208lbs entering the draft, Jake Virtanen had an edge to him that was much needed for this team. A point per game in his draft year and 100 penalty minutes, no one was going to take this team for granted anymore. He was pegged as the next Todd Bertuzzi by the fanbase.

Before getting drafted sixth overall in the 2014 draft, Virtanen had off-season shoulder surgery, and the recovery time was 4-6 months, but that did not put fear in the Canucks — how could you pass on an 18-year-old wrecking ball who is lightning fast on his skates, and can score goals? The upside and potential of Virtanen out-weighted the cons of having major surgery in the offseason.

Virtanen checked a lot of boxes for Benning.

In his fifth pro season, Virtanen is still a work in progress bouncing around from line to line and often found in the coach’s dog house.

After a rough few seasons, especially in his sophomore season, after ten games, the Canucks decided to send him back to the AHL to learn and develop his game. Virtanen didn’t rejoin the team until the following season.

Fast forward to the 2019-2020 season, and it seemed that shotgun Jake had a breakout season stats-wise, and had he been afforded a full 82 game schedule, he likely would have hit the 20 goal mark (20 shotguns).

Based on these trajectories, Virtanen’s numbers should be seeing a growth in years to come, which is good news for Canucks fans. Having Virtanen be consistent both offensively and defensively would make this team that much better, but that’s easier said than done.

Jake Virtanen Career numbers

Season Age GP G A PTS ATOI HIT TK GV
2015-16 19 55 7 6 13 11:34 128 22 15
2016-17 20 10 0 1 1 10:09 17 4 0
2017-18 21 75 10 10 20 11:59 156 51 32
2018-19 22 70 15 10 25 14:49 154 46 22
2019-20 23 69 18 18 36 13:05 102 37 31
Career 279 50 45 95 12:49 557 160 100

As mentioned, Virtanen was on pace to have a career year; however, his play away from the puck is his weakness. His overall defence game was dismal, and Harman Dayal of The Athletic outlined clearly why Travis Green doesn’t trust Jake Virtanen. Among other things, Dayal outlines that Virtanen’s greatest weaknesses are winning puck battles along the boards, and making better breakout passes from his own end.

Thomas Drance was on TSN radio Tuesday morning, and said the following:

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“While Jake scores five on five, the team doesn’t score more with him on the ice than they do with your average bottom-six player. The other part of it is every line that Virtanen spends a lot of time on tends to fair worse by the underlying two-way metrics with him than without him.”

Maybe this market just expected more from Jake, but that’s expected when you get drafted as high as he did.

Virtanen hasn’t helped his case since the break in play. He hasn’t impressed the coaching staff in training camp 2.0. After a lacklustre performance in the opening scrimmages, Virtanen was without a line the next time he stepped on the ice but to his credit, Virtanen’s latest “game action” had been much better than the previous scrimmages. Drance later added:

He didn’t stand out in most of the shifts he skated for — it certainly wasn’t the best we’ve seen of him — but Virtanen took a crucial step forward in Wednesday’s scrimmage.

Virtanen skated on a line with Brandon Sutter and Loui Eriksson, which definitely didn’t help his cause, but he managed to snap out of his funk and be a difference-maker. That’s massive for a player whose speed and offensive punch would address many of the bottom six’s ailments.

Off-ice has been an issue with Virtanen in recent years, getting questioned about his offseason commitment. While during the NHL pause, Virtanen filmed himself driving on the road, and while no rules were broken under the provincial guidelines, Virtanen’s appearance at a night club caused an uproar, which resulted in management having a word with the 23-year-old.

Todd Bertuzzi comparable

Bertuzzi was a force to be reckoned with and delivered bone-shattering hits. A give it all attitude while sticking up for teammates and popping in goals. These attributes made Bertuzzi an easy fan favourite during his tenure in Vancouver. When Virtanen was drafted, people saw the similarities and added pressure to the young kid from Abbotsford.

Bertuzzi’s first five professional seasons saw him produce 161 points in 326 games, which is .49 points per game while Virtanen sits at .34.

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Season Age GP G A PTS
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
Career 326 74 87 161

Canuck fans started making the comparison to Bertuzzi as soon as the Canucks selected him. Both players have an edge to their game, all while putting the puck in the net. Virtanen was going to be that physical power forward.

But he isn’t a power forward, and the comparison just doesn’t hold water.

What frustrates some fans is that Virtanen doesn’t storm the net as a power forward should especially with the fantastic speed he already possesses. Instead, he tends to shoot from the wing with hopes of sniping one past the goaltender or producing a solid rebound. The 23-year-old — who will be turning 24 during the playoffs — will be heavily watched in the next few weeks. Be it from fans, coaching staff and management, it’s time for Virtanen to show that he can be a part of the future moving forward.

A change in scenery could benefit Virtanen to become that player this market desperately wants him to become. Still, some players either thrive playing in their hometown or crumble from the added pressure.

Remember, the NHL isn’t a developmental league despite what the Canucks had on their roster a few seasons ago. Virtanen needs to prove that he can be trusted in the defensive zone and become a complete 200-foot player. If Virtanen can do this, there is no doubt he will be a capable player for this franchise. He has killer speed and a wicked fast shot that he can use on the power play.

The Canucks have a decision to make on him shortly, either trade or sign him. However, Virtanen can change the narrative come this postseason with his play on the ice. Will he be a playoff performer, or will he crumble under pressure? The playoffs will be paramount for him, especially in the series against the Minnesota Wild. Virtanen’s speed and skill will earn him a spot despite not having the best of camps, but Virtanen’s leash won’t be very long.

Its skink or swim time, and in the exhibition game against the Jets tonight, he’ll get one last chance to show he belongs in the lineup for game one against the Wild. Jake needs to understand that time is running out with guys like Hoglander and Podkolzin in the pipeline, or the most famous Jake will be from state farm.