Virtanen demoted to final group of skaters to open Canucks camp

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser (65) pursues Vancouver Canucks right wing Jake Virtanen (18) behind the net. (Duane Burleson/AP)

VICTORIA, B.C. – On the first day of training camp, Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green built a bomb. Winger Jake Virtanen disarmed it.

As punishment for Virtanen failing to meet unspecified summer training “goals,” Green deployed the fifth-year pro in the third and final practice group on Friday, essentially banishing the Canuck from the grown-ups’ table.

So while Brock Boeser’s coveted spot alongside star centre Elias Pettersson was filled by journeyman Reid Boucher in Group 1, Virtanen, a 2014 first-round pick who scored 15 goals last season, skated beside Utica Comets Carter Bancks and Wacey Hamilton and other members of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate. The sparse group was filled out by two players on tryouts and entry-level goalie Michael DiPietro.

“Jake and I have had lots of conversations over the years,” Green told reporters before Virtanen practised in the final group. “There are certain expectations he wanted to reach and I wanted him to reach, and we both agreed that there were goals that had to be met, and if he didn’t reach them he probably wouldn’t be with the first two groups on the first day of camp. I’m not going to get into it any more than that.”

Green actually warned the media not to make too much of his first-day practice groups, knowing that deploying Virtanen with minor-leaguers put a spotlight and bullseye on the 23-year-old.

But Virtanen defused the story as much as he could.

“We talked,” the winger explained. “It’s not like I was far off from that (conditioning goal); I was pretty close. I’m right there. This is obviously the consequence of that. I’m not going to be mad about it; I’m just going to be putting my head down and grinding and working hard.

“I’m frustrated at myself. I think anyone would (be). I was right there. Like I said, I’m not going to be all pissy about it. It is what it is. I’m just going to work hard, and Travis knows. I told him I was going to work hard to get back to camp and be ready for it.”

Green insisted Virtanen is “a big part of our team, I think he’s a big part of future.” But it was impossible to overlook the message in the demotion of Virtanen to start camp.

“He’s a young, big body that gets around the ice well,” Green said. “He’s got to be able to do it on a nightly basis. (Out of) 82 games – Jake and I talked about it – we probably got 40 real good ones or something along those lines (last season). We want to get 80 or 70.”

Virtanen has made progress, albeit sporadically, since the Canucks drafted him sixth overall five years ago. Conditioning has been a constant challenge for Virtanen, who is six-foot-one and naturally big. He was listed last season at 226 pounds. He has said he can’t walk past a hot dog stand without gaining weight. Not that Virtanen eats hot dogs.

Green’s tough-love approach worked on Virtanen when player and coach were together in the AHL for most of the 2016-17 season.

There are lots of ways a coach can handle a player’s failure to meet expectations on summer conditioning. Green’s was public and direct. Was he trying to embarrass Virtanen?

“Not at all,” Virtanen said. “He wants his players to be the best that they can be. He’s like that with everybody. He wants everyone to be better, and he’ll tell you. I think you’ve got to like a coach like that. He’s honest; he just sticks to his word.

“Every year, Greener’s always pushing me to get better. It started in Utica. Every year I want to get better. He sets new goals for me, and I was right there. I think that’s just him pushing me to be a better player. That’s something you’ve got to like in a coach.”

Virtanen said his goal this season is to score “20-plus” goals.

Whatever Green does with his forward group during training camp and the pre-season is going to be micro-analyzed. The Canucks have 15 NHL forwards under contract – not including Boeser, the unsigned restricted free agent – and will be demoting at least a couple of them to Utica before Vancouver’s opening game in Edmonton on Oct. 2.

There are going to be losers in September, and on Friday, Virtanen was marched to the back of the pack.

“We talked to our group yesterday; you can’t wait,” Green said, speaking about his team and not Virtanen. “We don’t have time to wait for guys and they don’t have time not to get going right away. We have questions that need to be answered. I like our group, but we have to get down to our group, too.

“You’ve got to play your best; you really do.”

For the first time in memory, the Canucks did not provide practice lineups to the media at the start of training camp. Instead, the pairings were posted on the scoreboard only as each group went on the ice. It was as if the Canucks were trying to hide something. Or someone.

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