Time is now for Jake Virtanen to realize potential with Canucks

Dan Murphy reports from Whistler where the Vancouver Canucks are tired of hearing they aren't very good.

WHISTLER, B.C. – There are a lot of things that can trip up a player on his way to the National Hockey League. In the four seasons since he was drafted sixth overall, Jake Virtanen has been slowed by several of them.

But until Friday, on the opening day of the Vancouver Canucks’ training camp, Virtanen had never been tripped up by someone else’s vomit.

The 22-year-old winger crashed hard into the end boards near the end of a gruelling skate after slipping through the remains of teammate Troy Stecher’s breakfast.

“In a lot of our testing, Stech is the guy who does puke,” Virtanen explained after the first practice of coach Travis Green’s four-day camp in the mountains. “He just goes that extra mile, full tilt. That was a hard practice, especially for guys who have never had a practice with Travis before. There are no shortcuts.”

Nor has Virtanen discovered any shortcuts to the NHL.

There were a couple of ironies in Friday’s (barf) bag skate.

Firstly, as Virtanen said, Stecher’s vomitting is not a sign of inferior conditioning, but of superior effort. It’s kind of thing within the Canucks – Stecher works so hard, he throws up. Just usually not on the ice.

The other irony is that Virtanen, whose own conditioning has been an ongoing issue since he turned pro, was actually leading his five-man group in the debilitating skating drill before he got slimed.

At times, conditioning has been among the things holding back Virtanen, who was listed in last season’s media guide at six-foot-one and 217 pounds – about 12 pounds leaner than he was as an overmatched Canuck rookie in 2015-16.

He spent nearly all of the next season in the American Hockey League, where he scored just nine times in 65 games and was in coach Green’s Utica Comets office as often as he was on the ice.

Last year, with Green promoted to the Canucks, Virtanen stuck in the NHL and appeared to progress over the second half of the season. He finished with 10 goals and 20 points in 75 games, but led Vancouver forwards with 156 hits and was more noticeable on a nightly basis.

The Canucks have been patient with Virtanen, who just re-signed for two years at $1.25-million-U.S. per season. But he is starting to run out of time.

With a group of prospects, unprecedented for the Canucks in depth and ability, marching towards the NHL, Virtanen badly needs to build his career or risk getting passed. He may never be the formidable, impactful forward Vancouver projected when general manager Jim Benning chose him ahead of William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and David Pastrnak, among others, in the 2014 NHL draft.

But with his rare combination of size and speed, his willingness to initiate contact and ability to shoot the puck, Virtanen can still become a very good NHL player. The time for him to show that is now.

“I don’t know if ‘crossroads’ is the right word, but you hope all young players grasp the importance of fitness and the importance of taking care of your body,” Green said Friday. “There is a learning curve.

“Jake, like a lot of top players, had life pretty easy growing up in minor hockey and through junior. He’s such a powerful skater, he could play the game and probably not be in the best shape. That’s one of the things we’ve tried to push on him: Become this fine-tuned machine that really good pros are. Learn to take care of your body and be in great shape because you can be at your best then. There’s no way you can be 70 per cent (fit) and expect 100 per cent of your ability to come out.”

Virtanen, who leaves his Yaletown apartment for a home in the Fraser Valley during the off-season, said he trained this summer like he did last year. He also took a twirl with his brother’s roller-hockey team in June at the North American championship in California.

“A lot of people develop differently, develop later,” Virtanen said. “I definitely feel like I’m taking a step in the right direction. I’m excited for the year to start because I want to start off good and make an impact.

“When you first come in and you’re a young guy, you’re trying to figure things out about how you can play. Once you establish yourself, you really focus more on the group and where you can go. Our team, in the dressing room, is really dialed in this year. Every day we come to the rink, we’re going to want to get better. It’s going to be business every day.”

Virtanen said he wants to be known for delivering big goals as well as big hits and “absolutely” believes he can still be a top-six forward in the NHL. But he also knows there are a lot of talented, younger players lined up behind him in the organization.

“I’m not going to let some young guy come in and take my job,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to stay here. Look at a guy like Beegs (teammate Jay Beagle) who just won a Stanley Cup and was crushing it today. You want to be a guy like that.”

Virtanen has to be a guy like that. Every day.

• Green said he hopes winger Antoine Roussel, the free agent who signed with the Canucks on July 1 for four years and $12 million, will be practising fully before training camp ends Monday. The Canucks announced the 28-year-old suffered a concussion during a summer scrimmage and was not yet cleared for contact. Roussel skated on his own Friday.

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