VANCOUVER — This is not the first time the Vancouver Canucks have shopped Jake Virtanen on the trade market. It’s just the first time they’ve done it amid a losing streak so dismal the team is in its deepest crisis since Travis Green arrived as coach in 2017.
General manager Jim Benning is not dealing from a position of strength. But he is dealing from a position of necessity.
Going into tonight’s finale of a three-game series in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, the Canucks have lost four straight by a cumulative score of 23-9. But as alarming as the competitive disparity has been for the Canucks in Toronto and Montreal, their slump feels even worse because Vancouver has already endured an earlier stretch of one win in six games, and nine times this season has allowed five or more goals.
Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the Leafs was especially disappointing because after getting embarrassed 7-3 on Thursday, the Canucks offered no response in the rematch. There was no spark nor energy to their game, no defiance in the third period when they trailed by five goals.
As Sportsnet analyst Kevin Bieksa, the former Canuck, said: “You don’t necessarily need to fight, but you do have to show a little compete and be a little pissed off when you lose. It’s just that competitive nature where you don’t go down easy. Just don’t give up.”
Bieksa said the biggest indictment of the Canucks is that “they’re fun to play against.”
No wonder Benning is trying to do something to awaken his team.
Virtanen, the exasperating sixth-overall pick from 2014, is an obvious candidate to go, although Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports the Canucks are also soliciting offers on Adam Gaudette, another young player off to an innocuous start.
The 24-year-old forwards were both scratched by Green on Saturday.
The coach seems to have finally run out of patience with Virtanen, whose five seasons of professional hockey have included four with Green — the last three years in Vancouver, and the season before that in the American League with the Utica Comets.
Even with the team desperate for energy and physicality, Virtanen has sat out four of the last five games. Despite an 18-goal season last year, the right winger from nearby Abbotsford was also a healthy scratch when the Canucks opened their summer playoff run that stoked hope and expectations for this season.
As we’ve said before, Virtanen would have been voted the non-UFA Canuck least likely to return for 2021. And he probably wouldn’t have returned had Benning an offer he considered suitable prior to the entry draft in October.
Trade prices, however, were depressed by the National Hockey League recession, which had teams clinging to their picks and wary of the salary-cap squeeze.
The New York Rangers traded 2017 seventh-overall pick Lias Andersson to the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 7 for a 60th-overall draft pick. Andersson was less established than Virtanen, but also two years younger. The Minnesota Wild traded 14-goal scorer Ryan Donato to the San Jose Sharks for a third-round pick in 2021.
Among these two deals was probably Virtanen’s trade value.
Benning has never commented publicly on any trade offers for Virtanen, but it’s believed the Canucks wanted a higher pick for a 220-pound player who is the fastest skater on the team and had steadily improved his goal totals the last three seasons to 10, then 15, and 18 last year.
But for all the size and speed and flashes of offence, Virtanen has proved to be frustratingly inconsistent.
“With him, it’s that consistency you’re looking for shift in and shift out,” Benning said in October. “I think Jake’s come a long way these last couple of years. We’ve seen glimpses of what he can be.
“It can be frustrating. But I’ve just seen too many examples where if you’re not patient with those guys and move them on, he ends up being that power forward that scores 25 goals for somebody else. We’ve put a lot of time in his development and we’re hoping he can continue to mature and get better and be that player for us.”
Benning made those comments the day he re-signed Virtanen, a restricted free agent, to a two-year contract that averages $2.55 million.
He was signed 10 days after unrestricted free agent Tyler Toffoli, a far superior right winger, left the Canucks to sign a four-year deal in Montreal worth $4.25 million per season.
Almost every discussion of Virtanen’s value since then has included Toffoli, who has eight goals in five games against the Canucks this season. Virtanen is stuck at one goal in 11 games — a wrist shot from distance that bounced in off an opponent in Calgary on Jan. 18.
The paint-by-numbers comparison people make between the contracts for Virtanen and Toffoli are unfair due to the total value of the deals. But there is also undeniable logic to the arithmetic that the salary Benning committed to Virtanen would have covered more than half the cost for Toffoli over the next two years.
To move on from Toffoli, it almost feels like the Canucks now need to move on from Virtanen. But mostly, the Canucks need a move or two to shake the team from its stupor almost as much as Virtanen clearly needs a fresh start for another team and another coach.
According to Friedman, the Boston Bruins are among the teams interested in Virtanen.
But the idea of the Canucks getting a prime asset back for Virtanen in the middle of a pandemic, with the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential travel and most NHL teams capped out, is suspect. Still, one pro scout told Sportsnet: “He’s still an interesting guy.”
So much time, money and fans’ emotions have been invested in trying to make a better Jake, that Virtanen will be closely tracked on the West Coast no matter where he goes. Many fans would be relieved to see the polarizing player leave. The rest will have to find someone else to argue about.