One of the more polarizing figures in recent memory for Vancouver Canucks fans, Jake Virtanen has been a lightning rod for criticism and praise alike. Now, his development is reason for optimism in and around the team.
A Look at Jake Virtanen’s Breakout Season
Having stumbled out of the gate to start his career, it didn’t take long for the former sixth overall pick to garner the label of ‘bust’. Yet the cautious optimism from Canucks fans never ceased to exist. With his tantalizing mix of size, strength, and speed, it seemed like only a matter of time before he finally learned to put those tools together. As it turns out, they were right. While the sensational play of Jacob Markstrom, Quinn Hughes, and J.T. Miller soaked up most of the limelight, Virtanen was having himself an impressive season before it was put on hold.
Entering the 2019-20 season, Virtanen had a mere 32 goals and 59 points to his name in 210 games. This with unspectacular career highs of 15 goals and 25 points, both set in the season prior. He got off to yet another slow start in 2019-20, recording only 2 assists in his first 8 games. Fans seemed to have quietly resigned themselves to the fact that it would be yet another mediocre, if not frustrating season from Jake Virtanen. Seemingly overnight, his play suddenly turned a corner however, and his stats reflected that.
Virtanen’s Growth During the Season
He scored three goals in his next three games, and the buzz amongst Canucks fans was palpable. Virtanen was showing signs of development, before their very eyes. He was smarter, hanging onto the puck a split second longer, looking to make better plays. He was making himself engaged physically. Inevitably, some claimed that it was just a hot streak. However, Virtanen quickly silenced his naysayers as his “hot streak” turned into continuous weeks of solid play. It had become clear that the real Jake Virtanen had finally stood up.
Although he was already on pace to break all career highs, many felt that Virtanen had much more to offer. The limited bottom-six deployment seemed to be shackling him. His play didn’t go unnoticed by Head Coach Travis Green however, as he was eventually placed on the team’s first line with Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller.
Analytically, the line of Pettersson – Miller – Virtanen was one of the best the Canucks rolled out all season. According to moneypuck.com’s model, their Expected Goals for Per 60 Minutes (xG/60)* of 3.84 was the highest of any Canuck line combination. League-wide, they were no slouch as their 3.84 xG/60 put them at 3rd. Their Corsi* and Fenwick* was also the highest of any Canuck line combination, at a very impressive 58.3% and 59.7%, respectively. For those unfamiliar with Corsi and Fenwick, Corsi measures total shot attempts for, while Fenwick measures unblocked shot attempts for. In other words, 58.3% of the total shot attempts and 59.7% of the total unblocked shot attempts belonged to the Canucks when Pettersson – Miller – Virtanen were on the ice.
*Among line combinations with a minimum TOI of 100 minutes.
Virtanen’s poor shot selection was one of his largest areas of criticism in past seasons. Countless times, he would fail to recognize developing plays and opt to release a fluttering wrist shot from the boards. This became a virtual non-issue in 2019-20, where it looked as though he had completely shed that aspect of his game. The following shot charts by Evolving Hockey visualizes this.
The chart on top represents Jake Virtanen’s 2018-19 season. It clearly shows his tendency to shoot from along the right wing boards, and other low-danger areas. Shots from the slot are few and far between. This is not very promising from a supposed power forward. In contrast, the chart visualizing his 2019-20 season clearly shows a concentration of shots in the scoring area. This suggests that Virtanen was far more engaged near the net and not being deterred by physical battles, getting involved in the “dirty areas” as it’s affectionately called. It was the type of play that the fans and media had been clamouring for.
The Eye Test
The eye test did not disappoint either. Virtanen’s aggressive style meshed beautifully with Pettersson and Miller’s skill, opening up lanes and creating space. He shined during this stretch, although he was eventually demoted with the acquisition of Tyler Toffoli at the trade deadline. It did for the Canucks brass what a perfect movie trailer would. It left them wanting more, salivating not only at what he was, but at the thought of what he could become.
What Does the Future Hold for Jake Virtanen?
With a healthy Brock Boeser and the Canucks hoping to re-sign Tyler Toffoli, it remains to be seen whether the team will utilize Virtanen as a scoring option next season. However, it is certain that Virtanen has established himself as an important member of the Canucks’ young core. When the NHL season came to a halt with 13 games remaining on Vancouver’s schedule, Virtanen was well on his way to topping 40 points for the first time. 18 goals and 36 points at the time of the hiatus. Only 23 years of age, Virtanen will have the opportunities and time to blossom into an even more impactful player. It’s clear this season will prove to be a valuable stepping stone for him moving forward.