Virtanen, who signed a two-year, $2.5-million contract Wednesday, has been working with stickhandling specialist and YouTube sensation Pavel Barber in the hopes it will give him an edge on the competition.
“Honestly, after the second or third time I skated with him I felt a big difference,” Virtanen told Sportsnet 650 Wednesday. “He gives me a lot of off-ice drills too that, if I’m just sitting at home with a puck and a ball, I can do a couple drills that he gives me. He’s a really good stickhandling coach.”
Virtanen was selected sixth overall by the Canucks in 2014 but only has 17 goals and 17 assists though his first 140 NHL games — a far cry from the 85 goals and 161 points he had in 192 games with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.
Barber, who holds frequent seminars across North America, teaches much more than nifty tricks to try in a shootout or at practice and Virtanen said he appreciates the practicality in that.
“He does a lot of in-game stuff so that’s really nice. A lot of protecting the puck drills and stuff like that,” Virtanen said. “He’s a really good guy. Everyone knows that he’s got some pretty sick hands if you’ve seen his videos on YouTube and Instagram. He’s got some really good hands, so it’s really nice to learn from him. He’s a great mentor for me.”
If his improved hands can pay dividends on the ice we could potentially see Virtanen secure a spot on one of Vancouver’s top two lines.
“I want to be that guy where my teammates know what they’re going to get from me every night,” he said. “Being a top-six guy would be ideal and I want to earn that. It’s not going to be easy. We’ve got a really [deep] lineup coming through so I’m excited for when camp comes around and seeing how things play out.”
Virtanen managed just 10 goals and 10 assists in 75 games this past season, numbers that don’t scream ‘top-six forward.’
“I think I haven’t done a great job of scoring enough,” said Virtanen, who added he thinks improving his two-way game will also result in more chances. “Obviously I know that I can score goals but I just have to go out there and do it. Just get greasy and it doesn’t matter how it goes in, as long as it gets in there.
“If you’re a good guy in the defensive zone it just transfers over to the offensive zone. If you’re getting pucks out I can use my speed to beat defencemen on the forecheck.”
The 21-year-old averaged 17.4 shifts and 11:07 of ice-time over his first 55 games but those averages increased to 21.25 shifts and 14:24 in ice-time per game over his final 20 contests thanks to his improved play as the season went along.
“Last season, the last 20 games was a big stepping stone for me and I really showed how I can play,” Virtanen said. “But moving forward here, obviously I have a lot to prove still to my teammates and coaching staff. I’m just looking forward to getting into camp. I’m counting down the days. I’m working on my off-season conditioning and I’ll be ready to go hard when camp comes.”
After spending most of the 2016-17 campaign with the Utica Comets in the AHL, Virtanen said his goal heading into 2017-18 was to enter camp with a fresh mind, continue learning how to be an everyday NHLer and take in as much as he could from the Sedins in their final season.
He did that. Now he aims to take the next step.
Bo Horvat leveraged a strong performance in his third full NHL season and cashed in with a six-year, $33-million contract. Virtanen’s cap hit is set at $1.25 million in each of the next two seasons but if he does fulfill his goals of becoming a better scorer and a regular top-six forward, the next contract he inks could be much more lucrative than the one he signed Wednesday.