VANCOUVER – Jake Virtanen has had so much experience with training camps that he seems able now to get demoted without actually doing anything.
When the Vancouver Canucks officially opened Monday their third camp in 16 months, Swedish rookie dynamo Nils Hoglander skated in the spot that was supposed to be Virtanen’s to lose: on the second line beside Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson.
“As far as Jake goes, it'll be up to him to decide where he plays, whether it's first line, second, third, fourth,” Canuck coach Travis Green said. “And for us, it's not about what's best for Jake, it's about what's best for the team, and how that looks. He knows that as well. It’s all about winning.
“I'm not worried about where Jake plays. I'm just worried about how our team looks and I'm worried about the players here.”
After five years of NHL struggle, when Virtanen often followed a step forward with one back, this is supposed to be the 24-year-old’s big opportunity. Top-six winger Tyler Toffoli left as a free agent. The Canucks used most of their precious cap space to replace starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and upgrade the defence.
Virtanen, who would have been voted the Canuck least likely to return after starting last summer’s playoff tournament as a healthy scratch, was actually re-signed for two years at $2.55 million in October and told he’d be given the chance to earn a job in the top six.
But on Monday, there was the five-foot-eight Hoglander, a 20-year-old second-round pick who has 14 points in 23 games for Rogle this season in the Swedish league, practising with Horvat, darting around the ice and making plays with the puck.
“Yeah, when I first saw it, I was a little bit nervous,” Hoglander said of his practice deployment. “It's two really good hockey players and good guys and it just feels good to be out there.”
Virtanen skated on what looks like a potential third line with Brandon Sutter and winger Tyler Motte.
“I think you can read into them; I know you will, anyway,” Green said of his camp-opening line combinations, before deadpanning: “You probably saw Petey (Elias Pettersson) with (J.T.) Miller and (Brock) Boeser. You might see that at times during the season.
“Yeah, you can read into it. We've got to make decisions, we're not just out there to skate and condition; we're out there to see how combinations look.”
Virtanen was dropped by Green from Vancouver’s top four lines a couple of days into July’s summer camp. The previous September, he was demoted on the opening day of training camp for missing off-season conditioning targets.
Despite the reprimands, Virtanen went on to score 18 goals in the 2019-20 season.
“I'm just going to go and work hard and I’m not really paying attention (to line combinations),” Virtanen said Monday. “I'm just going to try to work hard and earn a spot in the top six. I know there's a lot of good competition out here you know you’ve got to work hard, and you know every guy is going to be out here trying to earn spots.”
Green configured his top for forward lines and defence pairings like this:
Antoine Roussel-Adam Gaudette-Zack MacEwen
Alex Edler-Nate Schmidt
Olli Juolevi-Tyler Myers
Quinn Hughes-Jalen Chatfield
Jack Rathbone-Jordie Benn
This left notable NHL veterans Jay Beagle and Loui Eriksson in depth positions. Defenceman Travis Hamonic, still early in his seven-day travel quarantine, will be among the top-six defencemen next week.
READY OR NOT, TIME TO SHINE
With only an eight-day training camp and no exhibition games before the Canucks open their season in Edmonton on Jan. 13, Green said he can’t wait for young players to get comfortable competing for an NHL job if they aren’t already. Prospects like Hoglander and Rathbone better be ready to go.
“It's important for us, it's important to the player,” Green said. “We're not going to have a lot of time to make decisions. We don't really have time for guys to dip their toe in the water.
“Every young player is a little bit different. Some of them come in and they feel comfortable right away and some of them, they need some time, they need some seasoning just to feel comfortable in their surroundings on the ice.”
The scarcity of patience isn’t fair to young players, but then a lot of things have felt unfair since the global pandemic began.
SMALL DOSES OF SCHMIDT
There were a couple of audible on-ice “whoops” from Nate Schmidt to mark his first practice since the Canucks acquired him in October from the Vegas Golden Knights. But the effervescent defenceman said he’s trying to not to overwhelm unfamiliar teammates with his enthusiasm.
“Getting to see the coaching staff, the rest of the guys, that's what you're most nervous about,” he said. “You're nervous about. . . how you're going to fit in the room, how are you going to work into a new city, and it's gone off without a hitch here so far. Having Holts and Beags (former Washington teammates Braden Holtby and Jay Beagle) here was an awesome start for me because you have guys who kind of know the true, real Schmidtty. And sometimes, I’ve got to make sure I give it to the guys in doses because I don't know how much they can handle at first. I didn't know how much to bark and yell today because I don't want guys to get overwhelmed.”
Holtby, the Canucks’ new goalie who shared a post-practice Zoom call with Schmidt, agreed that his friend and teammate was being careful about his integration.
“It's been awesome,” Holtby said. “I think he showed us energy already. I think it's a positive energy that is going to be infectious to this group.”
Schmidt: “Ah, thanks, man.”
HUGHES VS. HUGHES
Several Canucks were asked about the all-Canadian division and playing the same teams nine or 10 times. Hughes, the Calder Trophy runner-up, was asked about not getting the chance this season to play against little brother, Jack, a centre with the New Jersey Devils.
“I haven't thought about it, but I probably won't miss it,” Quinn said. “I'm 0-3 against him, so we’ll just let that one slide.”