EDMONTON – Things could be worse for Jake Virtanen. Had Travis Green been able to dress 14 forwards for the Vancouver Canucks’ only exhibition game ahead of the National Hockey League playoffs, Virtanen might have discovered he is 15th on the depth chart – behind even Loui Eriksson.
As it was, 13 forwards dressed ahead of Virtanen for the Canucks’ 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday, and eight of them scored fewer than the 18 goals the 23-year-old managed this season despite modest ice time and little power-play duty.
General manager Jim Benning’s plea for people not to “read too much into it” was destroyed by coach Travis Green’s post-game answer to the question – the second one of his press conference – about why no Virtanen: “I just went with the lineup that I thought gave us the best chance to win. Plain and simple.”
So, tell us how you really feel, coach.
The furor over Virtanen’s omission isn’t surprising considering the winger’s numbers and the market’s history of reacting strongly to decisions at the bottom of the lineup. Aaron Rome over Keith Ballard!?
What is surprising is that Virtanen’s many advocates seemed to not have been paying attention to training camp when he was outplayed first by Zack MacEwen and then by Micheal Ferland, and so was punted out of the top four lines by Green. Nothing has changed since then except the Canucks’ shrinking window to get ready for Game 1 of their Stanley Cup qualifier against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.
“People are looking at this like it’s a negative because Jake’s not playing and I look at it like it’s a strength,” Benning said Thursday as the Canucks took a day off in the bubble. “Other than Josh Leivo, our whole team is healthy now and it’s not easy to make the lineup. It’s hard. We have depth.
“Loui Eriksson’s not playing either, and he had a good camp and looked good in the scrimmages if you were watching. When it came time to making the lineup, (coaches) just felt those other guys had better camps than Jake did. It doesn’t mean he’s not a good player; he was on pace to score 20 goals this season. Who’s to say he’s not back in the lineup next game?”
Looking just at talent level, it would be absurd to argue that Virtanen is not one of the 12 best Canucks forwards. Green would argue that he’s building a team, not a rankings list, and there has to be the right fit for Virtanen.
With Ferland apparently recovered from the concussion-related issues that restricted him to four NHL periods since October, more physical than Virtanen, and more accomplished so far in his career, Green logically went with the better player from camp to partner Antoine Roussel and Adam Gaudette on the Canucks’ third line.
But why not play Virtanen on the fourth line?
The simple answer is because he doesn’t kill penalties. But is two or three minutes of nightly PK enough to justify keeping Brandon Sutter on the fourth line ahead of Virtanen? Green prefers to compartmentalize his special teams, but offensive forwards Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller can also kill penalties, and probably Antoine Roussel could, too, if asked.
Virtanen has shown at times he is a liability defensively, and isn’t nearly as physical as he could be. But he is a fast, powerful player who backs up defenders and needs little help scoring goals. A player like that should make the bottom of your lineup better, especially in a looming playoff series where one of the Wild’s biggest advantages is their superior forward depth.
Overshadowed by the Ferland-Virtanen tornado at camp was that minor-league prospects Olli Juolevi, Jalen Chatfield and Brogan Rafferty outperformed more experienced depth defencemen Guillaume Brisebois and Ashton Sautner, who were not brought to the bubble in Edmonton when Green named his playoff roster.
Juolevi, whose development has been slowed and nearly jeopardized by injuries since Benning reached for him with the fifth-overall pic in the 2016 draft, dressed as the seventh defenceman in Wednesday’s playoff rehearsal. Juolevi played because he is the Canucks’ seventh defenceman, a groin strain away from playing in the Stanley Cup tournament.
The 22-year-old logged only 6:37 of ice time against the Jets, almost all of it against Winnipeg’s third and fourth lines. But Juolevi didn’t look overwhelmed and at least will have a better idea what he is in for if Vancouver has an injury on defence before Jordie Benn returns from baby leave.
“He’s smart with the puck and has worked on his mobility,” Benning said. “He’s gotten stronger, which allows him to compete harder. And he thinks the game fast, which is why he can handle the speed of the NHL.
“If you asked me at the start of camp, it would have been Brisebois and Sautner (in depth roles). But those other guys just kind of beat them out.”
This is the Canucks’ understanding of the protocol involving Benn’s return from Texas:
The defenceman could fly to Edmonton this weekend if there are no complications over the birth of his child in Dallas, but he immediately would be quarantined for four days while being tested daily for COVID-19. If he tests negative for four days, Benn could then start skating on his own while remaining isolated from teammates. After three more days of negative test results, only then would Benn be able to skate with the Canucks. At that point, since he would likely require at least a couple of full practices, Benn is likely out for the entirety of their first-round series against Minnesota.