VANCOUVER – Shotgun Jake is being unloaded.
The 22-year-old winger, whose unexpected early-season offence spawned the Shotgun Jake movement online in which fans celebrated his goals with a beer, practised as an extra forward on Tuesday and is expected to be a healthy scratch Wednesday when the Canucks close out a six-game National Hockey League homestand against the Carolina Hurricanes.
After scoring 11 times in 39 games before Christmas – the former sixth-overall draft pick scored only 10 goals in 75 games last season – Virtanen went 11 games without a point before registering an assist in Vancouver’s 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.
Coach Travis Green has steadily reduced Virtanen’s ice time over the last four games: 17:44, 15:28, 13:41, 10:42. Statistically, it’s not surprising that his next demotion would be to the press box.
But Virtanen has still had a physical presence — registering 14 hits as the Canucks began their homestand 3-0-2 — generally has been a much more effective player this season than he was last year, and is considered an important second-tier piece of the Canucks’ future.
Of course, so was enigmatic winger Nikolay Goldobin until Green began scratching him from the lineup three weeks ago.
It looked in Tuesday’s practice that Goldobin, a 23-year-old who remains fourth in Canucks scoring despite sitting out five of the last seven games, would replace Virtanen.
As is his custom, Green refused to confirm his lineup the day before a game. He has previously demoted players at practice, only to reinstate them for games.
“If any young player gets scratched, they’ve got to learn from it,” Green said. “They’ve got to listen to the coaches, put in the work, and improve.
“The NHL, man, a lot of guys don’t hit their best until they’re four, five, six, seven years in the league and they’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs – good play, bad play, adversity. When you’ve gone through those ups and downs in your career, you either eventually figure out how to be consistent and a guy who knows what it takes. Or you fade out.”
Green said “consistency” is what he wants from Virtanen, who was not available to speak to reporters.
“He’s one of the young guys and it’s well-known we’ve done a lot of work with Jake,” Green said. “I like where his game has progressed. When he’s on, he’s very impactful. But he hasn’t had the consistency in his game that we’re looking for here as of late.
“It’s keeping an even keel, not getting ahead of yourself. If things go well, do the same things. If things don’t go well, you can look in the mirror and say: ‘What do I have to do to make changes?’ The younger you are, sometimes you’re looking for maybe an excuse instead of the real truth. Because sometimes the truth is hard.”
The truth about Virtanen is hard to figure. He hasn’t been as noticeable since Christmas, but also hasn’t been the poorest Canuck. Vancouver is still 6-3-2 since he last scored.
If Virtanen is scratched, it should be a wakeup call, a reality check. One good autumn doesn’t give you an NHL career. Complacency is fatal in professional sports.
“Don’t think things will be easy,” veteran forward Antoine Roussel cautioned. “When you’re on a bad slope, you got to work harder and play simpler and bring something to the table. Focus on the thing that you’re going to bring.
“You’ve got to learn the hard way sometimes. It’s like when you’re a parent and you’re worried about your kid so you’re beside them all the time holding their hand. But sometimes they’ve got to fall. When they fall, they’ll know: Don’t go to the edge again. If they do, boom, they fall again. If you’re smart, you’ll adjust and be better. If you’re stupid, you’ll keep doing the same mistakes.”
To be clear, Roussel wasn’t speaking specifically about Virtanen, but young players generally.
Virtanen is too big to fail in Vancouver. In draft position and his development since, the Canucks have invested too much in the power forward to let him falter now. Emerging from a rebuild, the team still doesn’t have enough good wingers and no others with the size, speed and disposition that Virtanen possesses.
This is the same tough love that Green displayed last season to defenceman Ben Hutton and even winger Sven Baertschi, who at age 25 and in his sixth NHL season, was a healthy scratch for one game.
“Our team these last two games hasn’t been good at all,” Baertschi said Tuesday. “Sometimes it’s just a little tweak in the lineup — the coaching staff wants to see something different and want to change it up.
“For Jake, he knows how to handle this. Sometimes guys need it. Maybe I needed it before. You just hit the reset button and then get back to playing hockey. You can’t lose your confidence. We’re all just human beings, too, so there’s going to be stuff going through your head. Just let it be and move on.”
But as Baertschi admits, that’s harder to do than say.