Photo Credit: © Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Virtanen will be given a top six run in 2021 and he needs to seize the opportunity

After signing a two-year contract with an average annual value of $2.55 million this offseason, it’s time for Jake Virtanen to take the step and become a regular top six contributor.

Everything is set up for Virtanen to have success this season. He is coming off a career year where he saw a high in 5-on-5 goals/60, assists/60, shots/60, penalties drawn/60 and individual expected goals/60. He found success alongside J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson on the team’s first line and could get a chance to start the new season with the Canucks’ top two points producers.

A lot of this season is going to depend on how things shake down at training camp. Virtanen had two bad camps last season and that will need to motivate him, he simply cannot come into this training camp out of shape.

Jake Virtanen Now

Games Played Goals Assists Points
69 18 18 36

Last season, Virtanen scored eight goals before getting regular power play time with the Canucks. It took 30 games before we saw Virtanen get an opportunity to show off his shot on the second unit. When he was given the chance on the power play, he made the most of it, leading the Canucks with 17.7 shots on net per 60 minutes with the man advantage.

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He did a great job gaining the zone with his speed down the wing. The second unit scored a good amount of goals from simple Tyler Myers breakouts that resulted in goals from Adam Gaudette and Virtanen.

There were also Myers-Virtanen connections while set up in the offensive zone.

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It wasn’t all power play production for Virtanen last season, he was fourth on the team for even-strength goals with 12, only trailing Pettersson (19), Miller (18) and Tanner Pearson (16).

The Best of 2021 Virtanen

Games Played Goals Assist Points
56 24 22 46

There’s uncertainty on the right side of the Canucks’ top six forward group. The best-case scenario for Virtanen is that he lands on the right wing with Pettersson. If this is the case and he sticks on that line, he will put up points. The question will be if his play is consistent enough to warrant a long stretch with Pettersson.

There is chemistry between Pettersson and Brock Boeser but Boeser has worked well with Bo Horvat in the past while Virtanen has not. Putting Boeser with Horvat and Pearson helps balance the offence and gives the Canucks the most projected goals out of their top six group. Miller and Pettersson are both excellent defensive players and if Virtanen were to improve in his own zone just a bit, he could be a nice piece for the Canucks’ top line.

His speed fits well with the Pettersson line as his ability to gain the offensive zone with just his skating is augmented with the time and space that defenders needs to commit to Pettersson. That’s why there sometimes appears to be more room for Virtanen when he skates alongside Pettersson. He isn’t the key piece of the line, teams are more worried about Pettersson’s scoring ability as they should be.

It’s a similar situation for Miller, one of the reasons why he has success with top end players is his ability to be an excellent compliment contributor. Having Virtanen be the third most dangerous offensive player on that line really opens up the ice for him.

When he is skating on the third line with Roussel and Gaudette, he is the key piece, he’s the big, fast first-round pick with a rocket shot and draws more attention in the offensive zone. Unfortunately, Virtanen just isn’t able to dominate like top-end players do but he still has the capability of making an impact on a top line, just not as “the guy”.

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Virtanen needs to have the right fit and to get the most of his skill, Travis Green will need to fit the piece of the puzzle together to get the most out of his top six. It may not be a full season trio but with nine or 10 games against each team, there will be lots of movement in lineups if teams can’t find success against a certain opponent.

The Worst of 2021 Virtanen

Games Played Goals Assists Points
45 9 10 19

The worst-case would be that Virtanen comes into camp out of shape and finds himself in the bottom six or low and behold out of the lineup entirely. He would have to be very out of shape and have a terrible camp to not even crack the third line but it happened to begin the playoffs so it’s still possible for this upcoming season.

No matter the case, Virtanen should still get time on the second power play unit as he does an excellent job of getting shots towards the net. He led the Canucks in shot attempts per power play minute played, averaging a shot attempt every 1:47 with the man advantage. For context, Pettersson averages a shot attempt every 2:07.

It is very likely that Virtanen’s power play scoring takes a hit as he shot with a 33.3% power play shooting percentage last season. The balance of him getting more ice time with him seeing a drop in his shooting percentage could balance out but in a 56 game season, he is likely to see a drop from his six goals last season. If he were to play in only 45 games due to injury or being a healthy scratch he will probably see a drop in power play production.

Throughout his career, Virtanen has been very healthy and the hopes are that he keeps that going next season but with a 56 game sprint, we could see more injuries throughout the league. Knock on wood for Virtanen to stay healthy in 2021.

What else does a successful 2021 for Virtanen look like?

Be Ready: After two tough training camps, it’s crucial that Virtanen comes into this coming training camp in shape. From his social media and rumours around the player, it seems like he will be ready for camp. With some young players pushing for a top six spot, Virtanen will have to play up to his full potential at camp.

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Top Six Fix: The Canucks need a player to take that open top six spot on the right side. It’s the perfect scenario for Virtanen and he will be given the opportunity to take it. We will see how things play out at training camp.

Power Play Prowess: Last season Virtanen took a big step to become one of the best power play producers on the team and if he is able to continue to bring offence to the second unit, the Canucks will be deadly with the man advantage in 2021.

What Might Get in the Way?

Highlight Höglander: If Nils Höglander comes out and dominates camp, Virtanen may be pushed out of the top six. With players like Vasili Podkolzin and Höglander coming through the pipeline and making their way onto the Canucks’ roster in the next two years, Virtanen will have to continue to improve to be a top six player in the future.

Jake: Unfortunately, Virtanen has gotten in his own way in the past, he came into Victoria’s training camp out of shape which was not acceptable for Travis Green and found himself skating with the third group on day one of camp. At the second training camp this year he lost his spot in the lineup entirely. He will need to help himself instead of getting in his own way this January at camp. He has all the skills to be an impact NHL player but can he put it together to be great this year?

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Virtanen is the hometown kid who will always generate attention in this market. Some of it is put on himself and he has made mistakes in the past. After signing a two year contract extension with the Canucks this offseason he will need to improve throughout these two years. The Canucks need a player like him to step his game up for them to be a playoff competitor and he has the keys to the castle to make it happen.

If he is given a spot on the Pettersson line for opening night, he needs to make the most of his opportunity. This isn’t the last chance for Virtanen but we will be getting very close to the end if there are more failures than successes this season.