Vancouver Canucks and Jake Virtanen Soap Opera Continues

Jake Virtanen

It’s a day they were hoping wouldn’t come. At the exact same time, another they were hoping this day would hurry up and get here. Bottom line? Jake Virtanen and his time with the Vancouver Canucks is over in every way, but officially.

Canucks are Done with Jake Virtanen

Removed from the lineup against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, Virtanen’s fate was clearly scratched on the wall. He was handed a first-line opportunity on a silver platter and used it as a Frisbee(tm). J.T. Miller was kept out of the lineup early due to COVID-19 protocols, and still Jake refused to take advantage. Against a weak opponent, he showed nothing special on the attack. In fact, a stupid offensive zone holding the stick penalty in a 1-0 game resulted in Ottawa’s only goal that night.

Have you ever had a teacher who starts every conversation about a certain kid with a sigh?  Travis Green is a ridiculously even-keeled interview, pre or post-game. He’s the same way with his players, talking them up a little if he thinks they need a boost, or pointing out flaws when they’re going well. We’ve gotten so used to it that he’s sarcastically dubbed the Ultimate Hype Man. Ask him about Virtanen now and he sighs. And there’s no one in the industry who has worked more closely with him than Green.

Sometimes every chance isn’t enough.

Controversial from Day One

Immediately on Virtanen’s name getting called on Draft Day, 2014, there were questions. The appeal was obvious: Big, strong, fast, has a wicked wrist shot. It may have been a bit of a stretch to select him sixth overall, but it wasn’t much of one. His main competition, to most eyes, was Nikolaj Ehlers or William Nylander. For a team lacking a true finisher – Ryan Kesler‘s 25 goals led the team that year – they were options. Ehlers’ 49 goals and 104 points in 63 OHL games made him a high pick.  Nylander’s play with MODO doesn’t look like great numbers, but the skill was obvious.

Both of them, however, played a light, high-skill game. Jake Virtanen, in addition to getting 45 goals in 71 WHL games, racked up 100 minutes in penalties. Great speed with a 210-pound frame, a goal scorer, AND a local from New Westminster? It’s easy to see why he would be a preferred selection. Two other prospects played a similar style – Nick Ritchie and Michael Dal Colle – and all were top picks.

Virtanen joined draftmate Jared McCann on the Canucks in 2015-16 alongside rookie defenceman Ben Hutton and sophomore Bo Horvat. Added to a 101-point team, they were supposed to form a young wave for the team to build around. It didn’t quite work out that way, as the Canucks dropped to sixth in the division. Virtanen played in 55 games in his rookie year, scoring seven goals and 13 points. Not a miserable season, but not what was hoped for. He did show an aptitude for knocking opponents off the puck, so there was something to work with. After the Canucks started 2-7-1 in 2016-17, Virtanen was sent to Utica for seasoning.

Starting Green

He met Travis Green then, where the coach worked on Virtanen’s play away from the puck as much as his scoring. It was a challenge, but that’s pretty much what the AHL is for. Virtanen’s scoring didn’t blossom, but Green thought he improved enough to come up to Vancouver when the team made him their next head coach in 2017. Oddly, Virtanen’s numbers almost mirrored his AHL season – 10 goals, 10 assists, one goal higher than in the AHL in 10 more games. Since then, his offensive numbers have slowly crept upwards, culminating in 18 goals and 18 assists in 69 games for 2019-20. That was with a bit less ice time, but with special teams use.

Unfortunately, signs of a decline were there. In the last two months of play (February on) he managed just three goals and two assists – and two of those goals were on the power-play. He followed that up with just two goals and an assist in 16 playoff games after being scratched for the opener. Green has solidly been in his corner, trying everything to get him motivated.

He’s been benched, given top-line minutes, used on special teams… this year there was talk of penalty kill time! There was some hope that Miller could be a mentor for him, a role Miller’s embraced. The excitement of “Shotgun Jake” showed a huge level of fan support. And obviously general manager Jim Benning wants his first-ever draft pick to succeed.

But Jake refuses.

Best Chance = Last Chance

This year, he was a breakout choice for good reason. He had a clean shot at starting alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Behind him were rookies and young players itching for a chance. Tyler Toffoli was gone. He signed a new “Show Me” contract that leaves him vulnerable in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. There is nothing left to motivate him with outside a cattle prod, and we’re pretty sure the MOU forbids it.

Even as Virtanen lost his spot, he was tried with second – and third-line variants. There, he produced… nothing much. His one goal, which was a lucky deflection off a defender, hasn’t been as troubling as his effort. He still has a chance to change gears and make a living as a bottom-six hitter. After all, Vancouver has had good luck with Zack MacEwen, and Tyler Motte is a clear example of someone who has value for his team as long as he can lace up his skates. And he has applicable skills: Virtanen’s best play is breaking down the D on a wing and shooting. That screams short-handed goal potential to us. He is a solid hitter and still gets more takeaways than giveaways.

Instead, he’s been passed not just by the surprising Nils Hoglander, but both MacEwen and Adam Gaudette have shifted to the right side to fill Virtanen’s space. There’s literally nowhere else for him to go. Well…

The Future of Jake Virtanen

We hinted at it before, and it might happen. If the Seattle Kraken don’t lift Braden Holtby, their next best option might be a freshly-exposed Jake Virtanen.

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