Canucks prospect Jake Virtanen focused on ‘being a game changer’

Jake Virtanen. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

When Vancouver Canucks training camp opens in a few weeks, there will be many young prospects pushing for only a few roster spots. A team that finally admitted last season to being in a rebuild still added veterans Sam Gagner and Alexander Burmistrov to a forward group that already had the likes of Loui Eriksson, Brandon Sutter, and the eternal Sedin twins.

There isn’t a lot of room for players looking to make the jump, especially if you think Brock Boeser has all but locked down a position already. The 20-year-old played only nine games at the end of last season after leaving the University of North Dakota, but scored four goals and an assist. The 25th-overall pick in 2015, Boeser is a good bet to start the season in the NHL.

But another recent first-rounder has fallen out of favour with a corner of Canucks fans who were expecting more to this point from the team’s sixth-overall pick of 2014. Jake Virtanen was brought into the organization after a 45-goal season in the WHL and billed as a future NHL sniper. But as William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers — two players taken after him in 2014 — hit the 60-point mark in 2016-17, Virtanen took a step back to the AHL, where he only scored 19 points. [sidebar]

It may be too early to say for sure whether Virtanen will fall short of the expectations that fell on him in 2014, but it is discouraging to see a prospect go from playing 55 NHL games in 2015-16 to 10 scoreless games and a season-long demotion in 2016-17. This year, Virtanen is coming to camp in September driven to make the team — and not as a one-dimensional player.

“You gotta have the mindset if you’re not scoring goals… you gotta be a game changer somehow,” Virtanen told Brendan Batchelor of Sportsnet 650 Vancouver. “Whether it’s getting on the forecheck, making hits, creating space for your teammates… you just gotta go out there, be good defensively too, you gotta be good at both ends of the ice.”

While no player, and certainly not a top pick watching his peers carve up NHL ice surfaces, wants to get demoted to the AHL, Virtanen thinks it was a blessing for his development. In Utica, he was coached by Travis Green who now controls the bench for the NHL club after a summer promotion.

Green himself scored 51 WHL goals in his draft year, but went on to have a 14-year NHL career as a role player who even had a 70-point season in 1995-96. Virtanen credits Green and Nolan Baumgartner, who was also promoted from Comets assistant to the NHL bench, as helping him fine-tune his game on the farm.

“I learned a lot in Utica from Greener and Baumer and the coaches down there,” Virtanen said. “How to play with high intensity all the time. I think Greener was always on me, showing me video constantly of clips where he said I could be moving my feet here. Always little details that he would show me that I wouldn’t really realize at the moment, but after he’d show me and I’d start to get in those habits — going hard all the time, moving my feet right when I get the puck, and even without the puck getting to open space. Just little things like that. Little habits, little details.


“Being a game changer is something I’m going to be focusing on. You gotta go out there and do something. You can’t just be out there skating and floating.”

With his experience having Green as a coach, Virtanen noted that he believes the Canucks will play a high-intensity game this season, pushing the forecheck as often as possible. For that, the team will need some of those young, fresh legs to help keep up that demand for a full 82 games.

And having a collection of prospects all pushing for a select few roster spots in October and potential call-ups later in the season will make for an interesting camp. That should be enough for any naturally competitive kid to bring it every day.

Whether or not you still believe in Virtanen’s potential and fit with the Canucks organization, he told Batchelor that all the lessons he’s learned from the coaching staff in the past year have him ready to make a roster he’s hungry to earn a spot on. He’ll look to fill whatever role he’s tasked with to achieve the goal of sticking in the NHL.

“I know I’ll be out there pushing for a spot no matter what,” Virtanen said. “I’m doing whatever it takes.”

He’s not yet too old to throw out all hope of reaching his potential, and for a talent like Virtanen who brings the kind of natural shot to the table that he does, his window to make it is still wide open.

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