Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Jake Virtanen’s time on the Canucks’ top line, so you better get used to it

Jake Virtanen has an arbitration date with the Vancouver Canucks and the two sides will try to come to an agreement on a contract before that date.

It’s likely going to result in him being a full-time top six player at the beginning of next season.

Virtanen is the most interesting RFA situation, as many predict that his contract will come in around three million dollars average annual value if both sides go to an arbitration meeting.

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He is coming off a season where he scored 18 goals in 69 games before having a very pedestrian playoff run that saw him score two goals and add one assist in 16 games.

The Canucks current top six situation is screaming for Virtanen to finally take that next step that everyone has been hoping for and become an everyday contributor at the top of an NHL lineup.

Unless the Canucks can find a better cheap option in free agency, he will likely find himself skating alongside Elias Pettersson and JT Miller next season. A spot that any player in the league would like to be in.

Luckily for Virtanen, this is the spot that makes the most sense for him to use his skill set. When used in the bottom nine, Virtanen is extremely ineffective. His expected goals for percentage plummets when he is away from Elias Pettersson.

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All of these xGF% are from the past two seasons. Thanks to NaturalStatTrick.

An interesting thing to note is that the only full-time centre on the Canucks in the past two seasons that has had a higher expected goals for percentage with Virtanen is Elias Pettersson.

Pettersson owns a 50.93 xGF% without Virtanen and a 52.64% xGF% with Virtanen.

Some would like to see The Lotto Line be kept together, which makes sense. They were one of the best lines in the NHL last season, after all. However, if Brock Boeser were to play with JT Miller and Pettersson they would likely be better at scoring and defending than they would with Virtanen but the top six as a whole takes a hit with Virtanen being used on Horvat’s wing.

Horvat’s xGF% drops significantly with Virtanen on his wing. Over the past two seasons, Horvat has an xGF% of 49.75% and when he is with Virtanen, that expected goals for percentage drops down to 44.26%.

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Last season, when Virtanen was used in a bottom six role, the Canucks only controlled 46.23% of the attempted shots on the ice. But when Virtanen is moved up to play with Elias Pettersson, we see a jump of controlling shot attempts of almost 12% as he has a 58.12% corsi percentage alongside Elias Pettersson.

Virtanen actually helps Pettersson’s line get a lot more shots on net as well. Virtanen had the highest shot rate out of the seven wingers who played over 20 minutes of 5-on-5 with Pettersson last season, averaging a shot on net every 90 seconds.

The expected goals for the Pettersson-Virtanen duo is not that horrible either. Out of players that played more than 20 minutes with Pettersson last season, Virtanen is fifth-worst with an expected goals against of 2.48 per 60 minutes. That is better than Josh Leivo (3.18xGA/60), Tanner Pearson (2.59xGA/60) and just 0.01 worse than Tyler Toffoli (2.47xGA/60).

Brock Boeser provides more defence when it comes to analytics but the trio of Virtanen, Pettersson and Miller was only scored on twice in 123:36 last season. That is expected to rise as the Miller-Pettersson-Virtanen line had an on-ice save percentage of 0.969%.

That save percentage is just not sustainable, and their on-ice shooting percentage was 6.9% and no, that’s not nice. That line should be clicking somewhere in the 9-12% range with those shooters.

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The analytics are one thing but I have to believe that the eye test tells a different story with Jake Virtanen on the top line.

Boeser made big steps this season in his defensive game while Virtanen did not. There were countless bad decisions made by Virtanen last season and though he was the speed and size to be a strong defender — the hockey sense is still lacking.

Travis Green will make the final decision on where Virtanen plays in the lineup. His analytics team definitely has these numbers and likely more so it will be interesting to see where Virtanen falls in the lineup.

His breakaway speed as a winger is something that could fit in nicely on a line with two players who are excellent in their own zone with Miller and Pettersson.

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For now, the Canucks best option is to have a top six that looks like this:

Miller Pettersson Virtanen
Pearson Horvat Boeser

It’s a worse top six than last season but barring a free agent signing or a trade, this is what it could look like on opening night.

Almost any player would have success playing alongside Miller and Pettersson.

Virtanen has pieces of his game that will help him succeed with those two players but there is definitely room for improvement. That being said, if that line isn’t able to find chemistry I wouldn’t hesitate to put the Lotto Line back together.

What’s CanucksArmy without discussing Jake Virtanen anyways? Would you like to see him on the top line next season or do the Canucks HAVE to upgrade their forward group before the season begins.

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