Why McCann should stay and Virtanen should go

Jared McCann scored twice and Ryan Miller made 25 saves as the Vancouver Canucks beat Montreal 5-1 on Tuesday night to hand the Canadiens their first loss of the season.

The Canucks are facing a pair of tough decisions, and they’ll have to make them quickly.

It may be a good problem to have, but time is running out before Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen, both selected by the club in the first-round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, will have their respective entry-level contracts tolled.

McCann and Virtanen, both 19, have appeared in six and seven NHL games respectively. If the club elects to allow the two impressive teenaged forwards to appear in a 10th game, the club will essentially press the start button on their three-year entry-level deals.

‘Burning’ a year of an entry-level contract is a concept that has crept into the hockey lexicon over the past few years. It’s dramatic language, and should probably be used more selectively. A year isn’t ‘burned’ if the player is a useful contributor on a playoff team, after all. And if ‘useful contributor on a competitive team’ is our benchmark, then you can easily argue that McCann and Virtanen have cleared it.

McCann is leading the Canucks in goal scoring with four goals in seven games. Though the 19-year-old centre has occasionally been left on the bench late in one-goal games, he’s playing more than 10 minutes per contest.

Though he’s slight of frame, McCann has proven himself fearless at going to the dirty areas of the ice where goals are so often manufactured. His defensive game also looks mature to the eyes, although the Canucks have been stomped on the shot clock when he’s been on the ice in even-strength situations.

Where McCann has filled the net, Virtanen has bruised opponent’s bodies.

The sixth-overall pick at the 2014 Draft has yet to score and is averaging only a tick more than nine minutes per game, but he leads the Canucks in hits thrown with 22. His speed has been consistently disruptive when he’s forechecking, he’s been dynamic in transition, and his in-your-face style has allowed him to draw penalties at a very high rate.

There are times when Virtanen doesn’t appear to process the game at an NHL level, but in the most difficult hockey league in the world his speed and physical play are already high-end. The Canucks have needed a player like Virtanen for years.

Vancouver’s rookie forwards have brought a level of excitement to the team and to the fanbase. To the paying customers, the Canucks have been too old and too slow since the moment they stopped seriously contending for the Cup. Promising early-season performances from Virtanen and McCann have lent a youthful energy, an exciting sheen to a stodgy product.

It’s at this point that we should separate the two in our analysis. Though it’s easy to group McCann and Virtanen together because of their age and their draft year, they’re very different players in very different stages of their development.

The more physically mature Virtanen was penciled into the Canucks lineup for months prior to the opening of camp, whereas what McCann has accomplished has arrived entirely out of leftfield. Plans need to be adjusted in light of new information though, and that new information would suggest that McCann should stay beyond the 10-game barrier, while Virtanen may be better served spending the balance of his campaign in junior and competing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships at Christmas time.

It comes down to several factors, both individual and structural.

Individually it would seem that McCann’s hockey awareness is clearly at an NHL level, where Virtanen’s isn’t yet. While McCann doesn’t quite have the NHL-ready body that Virtanen does, there were significant concerns about Virtanen’s conditioning heading into the year. The prized prospect has appeared to mostly answer those concerns, it’s hard to ignore that he’s delivering most of his highlight reels hits in the early stages of the game (21 of Virtanen’s 22 hits have come in the game’s first 40 minutes).

Structurally you’d think McCann would have the advantage too. He’s found a good deal of chemistry in recent games on a fourth-line with Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust, and being eased into everyday duty on a heavily used fourth-line seems like a smart, predictable development path for the young centre. It’s an approach that certainly paid dividends for Bo Horvat in the second half of last season.

It’s harder to see where Virtanen fits into the Canucks’ lineup going forward. Virtanen has bounced between forward lines in the early going, but I’d suggest that he hasn’t demonstrated that he’s dynamic enough offensively to play in the top six yet. Nor has he proven himself reliable enough in his own end to play on the third line.

That’s a problem for Virtanen because the Canucks already have two physical and expensive fourth-line wingers on the roster. This arithmetic may change depending on the outcome of Prust’s MRI on Wednesday, but Chris Higgins is still due to return from injury this week and the club still has a variety of bottom-six-type wingers at the AHL level (Brendan Gaunce – who was called up on Wednesday, and Alexandre Grenier among others).

In weighing what is best for the club, for the development of their two prized prospects, and for ticket sales, the Canucks have a series of difficult decisions to make in the days ahead. One thing seems pretty clear though; structurally speaking, McCann fits more naturally into the Canucks’ lineup at the moment.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.