VANCOUVER – Hockey is not brain surgery, but Jake Virtanen probably feels like it is.
Do you know how long it takes to become a brain surgeon? Four years for an undergrad degree at university, then four years of medical school, then another six or eight years of residency. And only then, in your early 30s, are you fully qualified to operate and repay your student and BMW loans.
Hockey players don’t have that long, even if their luxury rides come with their first signing bonus. Most players don’t survive in the National Hockey League into their 30s. Virtanen, the 21-year-old Vancouver Canucks winger, is only in his second year at the University of Travis Green.
The Education of Jake is not a summer course. The sixth-overall draft pick from 2014, who spent nearly all of last year getting lectured by Green at the American Hockey League level, has made significant progress under his coach this season.
If you ranked Virtanen’s 130 NHL games over parts of three seasons, seven or eight of his 10 best have probably come in the last two months.
Yet, it was only about four weeks ago that Virtanen was back yet again in the principal’s office at Rogers Arena.
“He was sitting in the same chair you are,” Green says, behind his desk in the head coach’s office. “It wasn’t long ago Jake and I sat in here and I spelled it out for him. Like, ‘You’ve got to start getting it. We can’t keep having the same conversations.’
“When he first got here, I think he took it for granted that it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ he was going to be an NHL player, but ‘when.’ But I felt like there was going to come a time where he would realize he might not make it. And that would be the time we were going to be able to gain some ground.”
The organization has made his development a priority. There is too much riding on Virtanen to allow him to be a draft bust.
He may not become a 30-goal scorer or top-six forward, but he sure as heck is going to play somewhere in the lineup if the Canucks can do anything about it.
Virtanen never should have played for the Canucks as a 19-year-old. He wasn’t ready to be a pro and the 2015-16 season was a wasted development year.
Last season, when Nylander and Ehlers and Dylan Larkin and David Pastrnak were starting to make an impact in the NHL, Virtanen was sent after 10 ineffective games to the Utica Comets. The hope was he might dominate at the AHL level. Instead, he had nine goals and 19 points in 65 games and spent nearly as much time in the coach’s office as Green did.
“It was a lot of time with Greener,” Virtanen says. “After practice, he’d bring me in and ask: ‘How do you think you practised?’ And I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, I think I practised good.’ He’d say: ‘Yeah, you skated well, but you’ve got to be doing this or that.’ He’d tell me I’ve got to be the last guy out sometimes, doing extra, or be the first guy out, doing extra. It was every other day, every second day.”
Promoted from Utica before this season to replace Canucks coach Willie Desjardins, Green says not all of his meetings with Virtanen were to reprimand him. But once every month or two there would be a come-to-Jesus meeting where Green demanded clarity and understanding from Virtanen.
“Everyone is a priority; I wouldn’t say Jake was special,” Green says. “But, in saying that, there are players who need more work than others. When you get a player like Jake down in the minors and he’s got lots of potential … I felt like part of how we were going to get to him was making him understand what it takes to be an NHL player.
“He can be effective in ways that other players can’t. It doesn’t have to be goal-scoring. When you can bring something to the rink where you don’t have to score, man, you’re way ahead of a lot of guys. You can affect the game in ways other players can’t. That’s his biggest advantage.”
Virtanen appears to have had a breakthrough in 2018. He still isn’t scoring much – eight goals in 65 games — and just had a quiet road trip as the Canucks were shut out in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
But before that, the winger was making himself noticeable every night. Virtanen was playing with purpose, using his powerful stride to get directly to the net and make a timely hits. His shot selection was better. And he didn’t turn away when opponents wanted to engage him. He played with, yes, a swagger.
Green saw it, too.
“I feel like I’m getting that back,” Virtanen says. “I had it in junior big time (with the Calgary Hitmen). I wouldn’t really take anything from anyone. I just want to be a guy who when teams come in and when their D is going back for the puck, they know I’m coming and they don’t want to get hit.
“I’m trying to build that confidence now that I can bring it into next year. I’d love it if Greener could tell these young guys coming in: ‘Watch Jake, watch how hard he works.’”
On a scale of one to 10 – one being a naive rookie, 10 a polished, self-starting professional – Green says Virtanen was about a two when he arrived in Utica last fall and left the AHL as a four. Asked what Virtanen is now, Green thinks about it a long time and says “probably a six.”
The education continues.