Virtanen shows how he can help Canucks win right now

Nikita Kucherov scored 3:50 into overtime to give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night.

VANCOUVER — Jake Virtanen can help the Vancouver Canucks win hockey games.

This isn’t about what he might be in the future, or has the potential to become as he develops. He can help the Canucks, and he can help them now.

It’s a reality that has been lost in the endless cacophony of social media criticism, unfair headlines, local media debates about Virtanen’s supposedly limited ceiling, and uncertainty about what Vancouver plans to do with a premium young player who is ineligible, as a 19-year-old drafted out of the CHL, to play in the American League.

On Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Virtanen was able to tune out the noise and remind his organization, the fans and industry looky-loos alike that he’s able to contribute at the NHL level.

“The goal is just to go out there and help the team win,” Virtanen said. “I want to go out there and just keep helping.

“Each shift I was just building up my confidence and trying things, some things worked and some things didn’t,” Virtanen continued. “I can keep on adding stuff like that to my game, and keep on developing.”

The Canucks are, obviously, taking pains to put Virtanen into situations in which he can succeed. It’s a wise course of action, particularly on the heels of an insane week.

On Saturday Virtanen had the opportunity to start the game for a shift with Vancouver’s top line. The announcement of his name merited a warm ‘welcome back’ cheer from the Rogers Arena faithful, and the shouts became a roar after Virtanen landed consecutive board-rattling hits on Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on that first shift.

If giving Virtanen the start was an operation designed to ease him back into the lineup and help rebuild his confidence, mission accomplished (though one is left to wonder why Virtanen didn’t get another look with the twins, especially when he was feeling it, especially when Vancouver’s best forwards spent over two minutes minutes playing with Derek Dorsett at 5-on-5).

“I just thought that it would be nice for him to get an ovation at home,” said Canucks coach Willie Desjardins of giving Virtanen the start. “I thought the fans would rally a bit after the paper, and I thought it would be a good chance to let him know that we were happy to have him back here. I thought he had a good period, I thought he might’ve been our best player in the first period…

“If he can keep playing like that he can make a difference to our team.”

From the first shift on, Virtanen was electric on Saturday night. The hits were big, the forechecking was disruptive and the scoring chances were legitimate. He used his speed to draw a penalty on Alex Killorn in the second. He nearly scored with a deft tip of a point shot, which he got his stick on even as he was draped all over Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy at the net front.

Of course, evaluating Virtanen solely on his performance in one game is a bit silly. It’s not much worse, frankly, than evaluating Virtanen solely on a disappointing five games at a tournament in Finland.

What should matter more for the Canucks as they weigh whether or not to return Virtanen to junior in the coming weeks, is his overall body of work. And what Virtanen showed on Saturday night isn’t out of line with what he’s shown all season at the NHL level.

Though the goal-scoring touch that made Virtanen the CHL’s leading draft eligible player in 5-on-5 goals in his draft year hasn’t translated in the NHL, Virtanen’s peripheral performance in his rookie campaign has been enormously impressive.
The fast, physical forward leads all Canucks players in shot-attempt differential, which indicates the things he does on the ice – and especially through the neutral zone – help to create an environment where the Canucks are more likely than not to outscore their opponents at even strength.

Virtanen excels with his physical game and on the forecheck, two areas where the Canucks are otherwise lacking. Montreal-based analytics tracking firm Sportlogiq track hits that effectively separate opposing players from the puck. On a per 60 minutes basis, Virtanen is throwing four such hits, a rate that matches what players like Tom Wilson, David Backes and Brandon Dubinsky have done this season.

Put simply, Virtanen may already be an elite physical forward.

He’s also demonstrated the ability to disrupt the breakout on the forecheck, something the Canucks, as a team, have been woeful at.

Sportlogiq tracks a stat they called “successful forechecking plays,” which includes successful blocked passes, stick-checks and body checks in the offensive zone. Virtanen leads the Canucks by this category, though as a team the Cancuks rank 23rd in the NHL. Virtanen is also the team’s best forward by loose-puck recoveries in the offensive zone, a metric that the Canucks rank 29th in as a team.

That Virtanen individually excels in a variety of areas in which the Canucks are otherwise poor should be enough to keep Virtanen in the show. And it’s worth noting that in discussing what the club plans to do with Virtanen during an appearance on TSN 1040 radio in Vancouver this week, Canucks general manager Jim Benning tellingly used the past tense in hashing out his decision-making process.

“I think (being in the NHL) is a good learning experience for Jake,” Benning said. “We can control his environment up here and how he works out and the types of things that we want him to develop skill-wise. I just think, all things considered, it was best that we keep him here and we keep working with him.”

We might be wise not to read too much into that comment, as telling as it may seem. After all, the Calgary Hitmen haven’t given up on the possibility of Virtanen returning this season and Vancouver’s acquisition of Emerson Etem on Friday would seem to create a bit of a logjam on the wings.

The Canucks have until the end of the month before Virtanen accrues a season towards unrestricted free agency and arbitration eligibility, so they have some time to consider their options.

Virtanen can help the team now though, and he has nothing left to prove or learn at the major junior level.

So here’s betting the Canucks keep him. Based on what Virtanen has shown he can bring to the table at this level, it’s the right call.