The Vancouver Canucks Jake Virtanen has been a controversial figure among fans right from his draft day. With players like Nikolaj Ehlers, William Nylander, and Nick Ritchie still available, GM Jim Benning selected the local boy.
Breaking Down Jake Virtanen’s Homecoming
Power Forward, But When
The 2014 NHL Draft had several choices that were going to go in the first round who were of a type: big, strong, heavy-hitting scorers. They are almost invariably described as “power forwards” without any firm criteria to match. A power forward in the 1980s would be someone who threatened to reach 30+ goals and 200+ penalty minutes. Historically speaking, this style of player doesn’t have their best years until their mid- to late-twenties.
Nowadays, players would be told they are more valuable scoring than sitting in the penalty box. It’s been almost twenty years since the top-10 PIM players had more than 200 in a season. Players getting to the front of the net and holding there or can grind the corners are the new definition.
Neither of which is Virtanen’s game.
Virtanen had a powerful draft year, getting 45 goals and 100 penalty minutes with the Red Deer Rebels. Fans and analysts pointed to it being a single good year and wondered if it was a sign of developing skills or a young man physically maturing and playing against smaller opponents. He underwent surgery in the off-season as well, but that didn’t affect his draft position.
He was justifiably rated highly, but generally a top-10 rather than sixth overall. What he showed then are the same weapons he has now – huge speed and a great shot on the fly. That he was also 6’1″ and 200 pounds in his last year in juniors making him almost impossible to stop. Even better, he was quite happy to blow through any opponent who tried. So while it was a bit of a stretch, being born in Langley was reason enough to select him early.
Virtanen stayed up in Vancouver for his first year, if only because the team couldn’t play him in the AHL. It was decided he wouldn’t learn anything in junior, so he started off in a bottom-six role. Fans heard about how dominant he was in his last year with Red Deer and expected a classic power forward. It had been a while since the team had a dominant player like that, and they were hungry for it.
They wanted mid-2010s Alexandre Burrows; they got, well, Virtanen.
He was clearly uncertain about his role with the Canucks, and that hesitancy showed. His raw talent got him drafted, but Virtanen’s game is based on confidence. He has moved up and down the lineup over the past four years, and that first season set the pattern.
In his sophomore season, he was sent to the minors to hone his defensive game. That’s often the hardest thing for young players to learn, but at least it’s teachable. In the AHL that year, he tallied a mere 19 points in 65 games. This disappointed fans, with some quickly referring to him as a bust. If he couldn’t make an impact even at the AHL level, what could he do in the big league?
Right Place, Right Time
Fortunately for Virtanen, he was in Utica with very specific orders – and with his current NHL coach Travis Green.
The former WHL champion coach worked on his relationship with his younger players, giving them clear goals and frank communication. Despite underwhelming offence, Green liked the work Virtanen put in enough to keep him when he got a promotion to Vancouver.
For the next two seasons, Virtanen was a frequent visitor to Green’s doghouse for inconsistent effort. He always managed to work his way out again, and even though there has been frustration he’s never been uncertain why he was being reprimanded. That frustration was echoed by fans who saw a sixth overall draft pick with a meager ten goals in 2017-18.
The next year brought only five more goals, but a seismic shift in fans’ perception.
Injuries and a dearth of options placed Virtanen with more skilled players, and partially as a result he started 2018-19 with a bang. Picking up eight goals in the first quarter season was a sigh of relief for him, for fans, and for GM Benning alike.
A sigh of relief or the hiss of a popped top, whichever.
During the off-season, a local radio show was speculating on the future of the hockey team – which we do in Canada in July – and proposed an advent calendar for each goal Virtanen scored. It immediately changed into beer – because, again, Canada – and was left idle until opening night. Virtanen scored in the third period, and #ShotgunJake trended across Canada.
If that was his only goal for the month, it would likely have stopped there, or become cruelly ironic. As it happened, eight days later he scored again and the play-by-play team took up the call. The goals came quickly enough, early enough, for the name to stick.
There’s a fun “play-along-at-home” element to it, but there’s a more important benefit to the story. He was no longer being asked about his lack of production or reading about players drafted behind him. Now it was about this goofy social story, and about him scoring. Usually, for a player to trend on twitter, their goal has to be exceptional. For Jake, EVERY goal trended.
Unfortunately, neither Jake Virtanen nor the Canucks could maintain that pace through the year, and they missed the playoffs once again. A lot more depth was brought in and Jake Virtanen was left once again wondering where he fit. Even worse, he was a restricted free agent with a few years of disappointing numbers. He signed a one-year “Show Me” deal and watched as two high-end wingers were brought in.
This season, Virtanen is off the power play, skating most frequently on the fourth line, and lost more than two minutes of ice time from his previous average. He’s managed just six shots on net in the team’s first eight games and scored just two assists. Green’s tough-love approach has usually kept him on the bench in important situations. He has barely seen any special teams work and has yet to see a second of overtime play, where his speed and shot could be extremely useful.
Getting the Swagger Back
When Jake Virtanen finally broke through with the game-winner against the Detroit Red Wings, it was followed by goals in the next two games. Three games after that, he hit his first multi-point game against the San Jose Sharks. Now, with the same playing restrictions as earlier, Virtanen is on the same scoring pace as his start last year.
But more than that, in the five games since San Jose, Virtanen has 16 shots and 14 hits. He hasn’t scored any points in the last three games, but he’s remaining engaged and active. This year he’s drawn half a dozen penalties (as many as Elias Pettersson), is leading the team’s forwards in hits, and gets to the front of the net.
Is this the year Jake Virtanen can play with confidence, even as the scoring slump hits? He’s 23-years-old now – typically right when those big, hard-hitting forwards start finding their game. His contract is up at the end of the year, and the Canucks are gathering a lot of young talent. Will he finally perform up to the expectations of fans and team for the entire season? Or will he continue the sporadic play that has frustrated both and be pushed off the team by new arrivals?
This month is a hard part of the schedule for the team, and if he can earn his spot here and now then there will be a space for him on this improving team. The motivation is there.
We’re going to see if “Shotgun” can be anything other than scattershot.