Virtanen needs to find consistency to become everyday NHLer

Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen scores his third goal of the season by beating New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in close.

NEW YORK — The best and worst thing about being Jake Virtanen is all the support he receives from fans, bloggers and reporters.

This support is unsolicited, unstoppable and unyielding. Basically, most people think he’s getting screwed on ice time by the Vancouver Canucks.

“Yeah, you can’t avoid it,” Virtanen said Monday, smiling. “It’s always there. Just because I’m a hometown guy, even just going grocery shopping, people are always telling me that. They’re like, ‘What’s going on? I’m not going to say anything.’ But they don’t really know what’s going on in the room. Greener (Travis Green) is the coach. He’s a great coach. He knows how all of this works.”

Of course, there are worse things than being told by strangers how great you are, how you should be playing more, how you should be on the power play. (Full disclosure: I said after the Canucks lost 4-3 in a shootout Sunday to the New York Rangers that Virtanen should have been somewhere among Green’s seven shooters).


It would be worse if everyone told you that you sucked. And it would be worse still if you actually believed anything outsiders, no matter how well-meaning, had to say.

Just 21 years old, and after spending nearly all of last season in the American Hockey League, two years after the Canucks selected Virtanen sixth overall in the 2014 entry draft, the winger from Abbotsford, B.C., has enough going on in his head without cluttering it with counter-productive ideas about being discriminated against.

If Virtanen ever truly believes that his own coach or the Canucks are out to get him – yes, the idea does seem a little absurd when you distill it in print like this – he hasn’t a hope of becoming a successful NHL player in Vancouver.

This doesn’t mean Virtanen shouldn’t play more often in some games. Against the Rangers, for example, he was one of the best Canuck forwards. Virtanen scored once, led Vancouver with five shots on net and nine shot attempts, registered two hits, and even-strength shot attempts were 16-10 in favour of the Canucks when Virtanen was on the ice. He shouldn’t have been the low man in ice time at 10:01.

But Virtanen has scored only three goals in 20 games this season, generated nearly half of his total shots on net in just three games, and been inconsistent enough that Green has twice pulled him out of the lineup in order to re-ignite the player’s intensity.

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Virtanen has looked much more involved, physically and on the puck, since he returned to Canuck lineup five games ago after sitting in the press box for three. Virtanen looks like he’s going to be an NHL player. And last season, when he was scoring just nine times in 65 games for the Utica Comets and being lectured weekly by Green – yes, one and the same coach – Virtanen looked like he might be a colossal bust.

“There’s a lot of teaching that goes into developing players,” Green said Monday after the Canucks practised in New Jersey for today’s game in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders. “There’s lots of communication, talking. When to be hard on a player, when to sit a player, that all is part of development. What’s best for the player? What’s best for the team? It’s different for different organizations.

“I think (Virtanen is) playing better. He had some things slip into his game that we didn’t like, but that’s part of development. He’s a little more engaged. He’s starting to make some more plays with the puck. It’s not just about hitting; it’s about becoming the best player he can become.

“When is he going to be the best player? I don’t know. Is this the best he’s got? I don’t think so. I think he can become a lot better player. We have to make sure we bring him along the right way. I like the way he’s developing.”

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It is difficult, however, to get past Virtanen’s consistently low ice time. His nightly average of 9:45 is last among the 14 Canuck forwards who have played multiple games this season. But analyze the ice times and any injustice being done to Virtanen does not seem as great.

All of Virtanen’s ice time is at even strength. Eleven of those 14 Canucks forwards have averaged 9:45 (Virtanen) to 13:31 (Markus Granlund) of playing time at even strength. It’s the extra minutes some players get on the power-play and penalty-killing units that make Virtanen’s total TOI seem so small.

In the NHL, there are 430 forwards who have played more than six games this season. Nearly 300 of them are logging 9-14 minutes per game at even-strength. So Virtanen’s ice time is near the bottom of the scale, but it’s hardly off the scale for a player trying to establish himself as an everyday NHLer.

“Greener has talked to me about that,” Virtanen said. “I think anyone on this team could be a power-play guy or penalty-kill guy. But (Green) has guys he wants in certain spots. I want to build up to that, for sure. I don’t want to be strictly a five-on-five guy my whole career.”

But for now, he’s concentrating on proving he can be a five-on-five guy. Which is exactly what Virtanen should be thinking about.

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