Virtanen rests his case to crack Canucks’ roster

Vancouver Canucks' Marcus Granlund had a goal and an assist while teammate Jacob Markstrom made 25 saves to help their team defeat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 Saturday.

When looking at Jake Virtanen’s individual stat line Saturday night, it was impossible to ignore two numbers.

The 21-year-old Vancouver Canuck, trying to reset his National Hockey League career after a false start that sent him to the minors last season, scored his fourth goal in his sixth pre-season game during a 3-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena.

And Virtanen’s fourth-line ice time of 8:39 was lowest on the Canucks.

Everyone loves Virtanen’s goals total, but it’s the time on ice that the former sixth-overall draft pick must understand and embrace if he’s to give himself a chance to climb an NHL lineup this season.

Two years ago, when Virtanen played as a 19-year-old NHL rookie straight out of the Western Hockey League, he was projected to compete for a top-six forward role that came with offensive expectations.

After failing to get anywhere near those projections, Virtanen spent nearly all of last season in the minors, where he managed to score only nine times in 65 games for the Utica Comets.

But his coach there, Travis Green, is now Virtanen’s coach with the Canucks.

At least, Green will be his coach if Virtanen survives the team’s final cutdown this week to its opening-night roster of 23 players.

Virtanen isn’t trying to make the power play. His linemates and role hardly matter right now.

What he tried to prove this September is that he deserves to be an NHL player.

And given his productivity in the pre-season, his consistency and efficiency, it’s hard to see how he is not in the Canucks’ lineup next Saturday when they play the Oilers for real.

"Greener told me, ‘Let’s focus on you just getting and staying with the team first, and not focus on what line you’re on,’" Virtanen told a couple of reporters Saturday after the Canucks ended their pre-season at 4-3-1. "If you’re here, you’re here and you’re going to be part of an NHL team.

"Whatever I had to do to make the squad, I listened to what Greener had to say. I did a lot of work in the summer, and felt good in the pre-season. I hope I’m here and I can just keep carrying this momentum with me and keep that confidence going."

Asked to explain how different this mindset is than the one he had two years ago when he was bestowed an NHL roster spot because the Canucks did not wish to send him back to the Calgary Hitmen, Virtanen said: "I don’t really remember two years ago. I don’t know about two years ago and what I was thinking. I know right now that whatever line I’m on, I’m just going to go out there and play. Every guy up here is good and can make plays, and it doesn’t matter what line you’re on."

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Virtanen skated against the Oilers on a line with Alex Burmistrov and Sam Gagner, whose own ice time of 18:13 was inflated by 5:12 of power-play action.

It was the players’ second straight game together — evidence that Green likes what he is seeing. It could be the Canucks’ fourth line — no matter what coaches implore, we will always number the lines — next weekend.

Somewhere higher up the lineup will be glitzier draft pick Brock Boeser, who starred throughout the pre-season and finished it with seven points in five games to lead the Canucks.

Boeser set a high standard for what prospects must do to make the Canucks, and Virtanen appeared to match it.

"Brock’s a great player," Virtanen said. "He’s got a heck of a shot, he’s got a nose for the net, he makes great plays. He slows the game, he is really smart with the puck. But we’re two different players completely.

"Brock set a high standard. He did really good. But just throughout the pre-season, I felt pretty consistent. But like Greener told me last year, it’s not all about points. If I’m playing the game right, playing a 200-foot game, (points) will come.

"Whatever happens, happens and will take place. But I felt I went out there and gave it all I’ve got. Hopefully that will do."

It should.