Canucks going all-in on youth movement

Rookie Jared McCann scored the first of two quick goals in the opening period and the Vancouver Canucks held on for a 4-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Friday night.

The Vancouver Canucks decided this weekend to keep Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen, their hotshot 19-year-old forwards, past the critical nine-game barrier. McCann and Virtanen have made the club, and have earned themselves 30 more games to demonstrate that they’re full-time NHL players.

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“By us keeping them here, we’re better able to control their environment,” explained Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a brief media scrum on Sunday.

“From their meals, to their workouts to our strength and conditioning people off the ice, how they practice, after practice with (Canucks skill coach) Glen Carnegie working on their skill sets, and it was a big decision. Even for our assistant coaches, it’s going to be extra work…”

It’s extra work that the organization has decided is worth putting in. And quite rightly considering the extraordinarily difficult tight rope the club is attempting to walk while trying to compete annually, while simultaneously behaving like a rebuilding club. If the club’s ongoing effort to have their cake and eat it too is going to work, there can be no shortcuts.

The first side of the hybrid-rebuild coin, as Canucks management will tell you, is the amateur draft.

Benning’s reputation in the scouting world was a key reason the club tapped him to replace Mike Gillis back in the summer of 2014. McCann and Virtanen were Benning’s first two picks running the draft table, and their earlier than expected NHL readiness will serve as something of a bat signal. A suggestion that perhaps this organization’s long history of frittering away draft picks is at an end.

The second side is player development. Crucial to the organization’s decision on how to handle McCann and Virtanen’s 19-year-old seasons was the club’s heightened ability to monitor their progress at the NHL level.

“The ability for us to control their environment, that to us was a big deal,” Benning told reporters. “They’re not going to get away with developing bad habits in practice or in the games here, and we can control a lot of things off the ice that if we sent them back, we really wouldn’t be in control of anything ‘til we saw them next year again.”

Benning comments on ‘controlling the environment,’ and on the importance of player development, echoed something that Canucks president Trevor Linden told me in Penticton in mid-September.

“We want to take our player development from a three month window – June, July and August – to a 12 month cycle,” Linden told me in September. “Whether it’s strength and conditioning, nutrition, sports psychologist, our prehab/rehab stuff. The work (Stan Smyl) and (Ryan Johnson) do with it. To potential injury-type situations. Trying to have a greater influence 12 months of the year and not just three months, because it’s so critical.

“With the importance of in-season training, in-season nutrition… I mean kids are kids, they don’t understand. And once they go to a camp and see the level that these guys are at, the commitment that the Sedins, the Burrows’, the Hamhuis’ have made. It’s not just ‘I’m training now!,’ it’s a lifestyle.’”

McCann and Virtanen will be monitored closely in Vancouver. While they’ve both been legitimate contributors so far – McCann is Vancouver’s leading goal scorer and while Virtanen’s physical play has made headlines, he’s been dynamic through the neutral zone – they’ll need to continue to prove themselves.

Breaking the nine-game barrier only ensures that they’ll hit restricted free agency a season earlier than they might have otherwise.

The next milestones for McCann and Virtanen will be the World Junior Championships and the 40-game mark, after which they’ll accrue a year of eligibility towards unrestricted free agency. If they’re performing well, they’ll cross those hurdles. They have to keep showing it though.

“We’ll decide mid-December where we’re at,” Benning said of whether or not the World Junior Championship tournament could be an option for his teenaged forwards. “If they’re continuing to play and keep developing and helping our team, we probably won’t let them go, like we kept (Bo Horvat) last year. But if we see a dip in their play and we’re healthy again then we probably won’t have that option.”

The club hasn’t committed to allowing Virtanen and McCann to break the 40-game mark either.

“Every day we’ve asked them to show up and be focused and just take care of that day,” Benning said. “Going forward we’re going to continue to monitor it… (The 40 game mark) is still a long way off, we don’t have to decide that now.”

Vancouver is now all-in on their burgeoning youth movement. On Sunday at a team video meeting, Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins ripped Virtanen and McCann at length before Horvat stood up and told them that they’d made the team.

That Horvat was the messenger is appropriate for a number of reasons. Beyond paving the path that Virtanen and McCann are now walking on, the young centreman improved enormously in the second half of last season. After struggling for the first half of the year, Horvat was a different player from February onward.

The 20-year-old defensive minded centreman was the proof of concept. Now it’s time for McCann and Virtanen to set up shop.

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