How stickhandling sensation Pavel Barber spurred Jake Virtanen’s rise

Jake Virtanen has multiple offensive tools at his disposal, and John Shorthouse and John Garrett explain how he put them all to use as the Canucks beat the Blackhawks.

TORONTO — If you’ve ever opened up YouTube and typed in something to the effect of “dangles” or “silky mitts,” you already know who Pavel Barber is.

The stickhandling specialist has made an indelible mark on the online hockey community over the past six years, amassing a hefty following with a slew of viral videos showcasing his elite abilities with the puck. That pack of admirers has only continued to grow over the years, with Barber’s YouTube channel climbing to over 160,000 subscribers — and netting 43.9 million views thus far — while he’s reined in 445,000 followers on Instagram.

Buoyed by those totals, the Toronto native has been able to run a string of hockey camps throughout Canada and the U.S., stretching from Auston Matthews’ hometown of Scottsdale, Ari., all the way to chillier locales like Winnipeg and Calgary. His Pavel Barber Hockey School touched down in nine different North American locations last year, and Barber just finished up a three-week tour through Asia running sessions in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and Shenzhen.

But this past off-season saw a significant shift in Barber’s coaching career, as the impact of his training prowess transitioned from the youth level to the pros.

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, he of three Cups and two Olympic golds, reached out to Barber in the summer for an off-ice stickhandling program to help him diversify his handles. Canucks winger Jake Virtanen, meanwhile, became the first NHLer to get personal one-on-one training from the stickhandling dynamo, the pair teaming up in Vancouver prior to the 2018-19 campaign.

“We started working off the ice, actually,” Barber says of his training sessions with Virtanen, which came together after the skills coach heard through a mutual friend of the winger’s agent that Virtanen was seeking his services. “Usually whenever I work with a client, we start off the ice and just look at the basic fundamentals of their stickhandling.

“We chat through all the philosophy of why I teach things the way I do and we can kind of highlight areas of weakness that he needs to focus on. That way, when we jump on the ice, we can hit it full swing and really attack those finer details.”

Virtanen had been instructed by the Canucks brass to work on his hands in the summer following a season of progress that suggested a higher ceiling was still there, waiting to be reached. Breaking down the winger’s game, Barber found a few key holes to shore up.

“Whenever you’re working with a player, you want to look at what made them successful in the past and what their strengths are,” Barber says. “When you look at a guy like Jake, he’s unbelievably fast, unbelievably strong, he’s got a great shot. So, you don’t want to change the player too much, but you want to give him more skills that are going to complement his already-existing abilities.

“When I was looking at him, he was very good at driving wide but maybe not as aggressive cutting into the middle — sometimes cutting in a little bit too late, not being as aggressive as he could be and should be. That was the first thing I wanted to work on with him, just finding those moves that are going to create a little bit of space for him, to get the speed advantage and then cut in and get a better shooting angle.”

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Those one-on-one sessions had an immediate impact on Virtanen’s game, according to the winger.

“Honestly after the second or third time I skated with him, I felt a big difference,” Virtanen told Sportsnet 650 in late July. “He gives me a lot of off-ice drills — 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 — he does a lot of in-game stuff, so that’s really nice. A lot of protecting-the-puck drills.”

The results are tough to deny. Through 20 games this season, Virtanen’s up to eight goals and 10 points — not earth-shattering numbers, but undoubtedly a sharp uptick in scoring pace from the 22-year-old’s previous NHL campaigns. He’s already just two goals off the career high he set last season, with three tallies in his last four games. He’s halfway to his career high in points, too, with 2018-19 shaping up to surely be his best in the big leagues.

It’s early, and the arrival of dynamic offensive catalyst Elias Pettersson has surely played a part as well, but it’s safe to say Barber’s tweaks have helped Virtanen capitalize on his current situation.

“Obviously, you look at the way he shoots the puck, he can score from pretty far out — it was all about just giving him a few more moves, a few more skills with the puck control to get to those high-quality scoring chances,” Barber says. “I think any time you get a lot of scoring chances, you’re going to put up better numbers.”

The Virtanen chapter is the culmination of a decades-long effort by Barber to build his understanding of the sport with hopes of impacting the game, one that started with him logging hour after hour at the Withrow Park outdoor rink in Toronto.

“I started on my own, just kind of dissecting the game, practicing stuff myself and figuring stuff out through trial and error,” Barber says. He first delved into the YouTube world in 2012, noticing there wasn’t much of a focus on stickhandling online, or the means to improve in that area if one was so inclined.

“Stickhandling in general was pretty under-studied, under-developed in a lot of people. It was kind of told to people — to me, at least — ‘You either have it or you don’t.’ That’s what the mindset was. I never believed that as a kid. To get better at skating, you work on your skating. To get better at shooting, you work on your shooting. [I wondered] ‘Why isn’t there good information about stickhandling out there?'”

The NHL, meanwhile, was beginning to embrace offensive creativity more and more with each passing year. Barber, long obsessed with the whirling wizardry of the high-skill game, saw an opportunity to add to that movement, and the results that have followed speak for themselves.

“I think five years ago, I could kind of see the direction the game was going, too,” he says. “I noticed that all these elite stickhandlers and puck protectors were the guys who were kind of making it. And the rules were changing, there was less clutch-and-grab, which opened up room for these skill guys.

“I think that’s why I initially started to post that kind of content. It was just missing.”

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