Why are the Oilers willing to take a chance on Jake Virtanen?

At Edmonton Oilers practice, PTO signing Jake Virtanen discusses his sexual assault case that went to trial over the summer.

PENTICTON, B.C. — Jake VirtanenEvander Kane. Zack Kassian. Andrew Cogliano.

How do those four names end up in the same column lede, on the day the Edmonton Oilers made headlines by signing Virtanen to a professional tryout?

Well, read on.

Virtanen arrives at this training camp tryout after standing trial in B.C. Supreme Court in July on a count of sexual assault, stemming from a 2017 incident in Vancouver. Virtanen claimed in court that the encounter was consensual and a jury of his peers found him not guilty on July 26.

“It was very tough to go through, very hard to go through,” Virtanen told the media in Edmonton on Monday. “You learn a lot about yourself, who you are as a person. There’s a lot of self-reflection on who you are. Your self-worth… It was a long process.”

Virtanen still faces a civil suit in the case, so the Oilers are taking a chance on a player who has not yet put the allegations completely behind him. So why are the Oilers willing to take on a risk that far outweighs any reward when it comes to Virtanen, who has been an average NHL player at best through the first seven pro seasons and 317 NHL games?

Anyone who has been watching this team knows that the Oilers are no strangers to taking a risk on a controversial player that has had to deal with legal issues away from the game.

Evander Kane signed with the Oilers in the middle of last season while still facing a long-running suit that was filed in July of 2016 by a Buffalo-area woman who accused the player of assaulting her. In April, the two sides reached a settlement while Kane was starring for his team down the stretch.

But Kane, who signed a four-year deal with the Oilers this past summer, is a first-line player and a 30-goal scorer. He is a vastly superior player to Virtanen in every category.

Virtanen is a 10-goal scorer who has never had a strong defensive game. He’s also struggled to stay in shape. So he comes to Edmonton as a third- or fourth-line player, likely to play at the league minimum if he plays at all.

That brings us to Zack Kassian.

Like Kassian, a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres who went to the Canucks in a swap for fellow first-rounder Cody Hodgson, Virtanen was drafted sixth overall by Vancouver in 2014. He was always looked at through that lens, and never lived up to his draft status.

“Never should have been drafted that high,” said a B.C.-based pro scout. “For me, you’ve got to believe in the justice system, and give him a chance. But hockey-wise, he needs a hard coach who stays on him all the time.”

Kassian eventually landed in Edmonton as a Bottom 6 winger. Expectations were far lower, and he thrived for a time, extending his career and cementing a role as a depth player.

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Virtanen will enter the Edmonton market the same way, slotted behind Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi and perhaps even Zach Hyman on the right side. Expectations, and his likely cap hit, are as low as they can be.

“I have to find my way on any line,” Virtanen said. “Bottom 6 is where I’m going to start, and that’s where I’m going to have to learn. I want to be a player there — a 200-foot player, and give my best effort every day.”

Virtanen is talking a good game. But is it genuine?

Only his play will answer that question, which brings us to Andrew Cogliano.

The Oilers drafted Cogliano 25th overall, and a potential Top 6 centreman. By the time he had played three seasons in Edmonton however, it became clear that Cogliano’s calling was to be a speedy, penalty killing, Bottom 6 winger.

Eventually Cogliano — a smart, industrious and physically fit player his entire career — embraced the new role in Anaheim. To date, he has played 1,140 games — about 700 more than he would have played had he stuck to his guns on being a scoring centreman.

Here’s what two B.C.-based scouts said of Virtanen, each of whom have more than 100 viewings of the player:

• “Good size, skates really well. Never found consistency to his game,” said one. “He always wanted to play a skill game, but he is more suited to a physical, Bottom 6 role. He can help you if he has the right mindset. If he is thinking, ‘I’ve got another chance now. What can I do to help?’ He is a third- or fourth-line winger who needs to reassess who he is and how he does things.

“To me, it’s a good gamble for Edmonton … because it hasn’t cost them anything, yet.” 

• “He’s an NHL skater, with an NHL shot,” said the other. “Not a great passer or playmaker. He’s a shooter who needs to play in straight lines up and down the wall. He has the wheels, size and strength. But, when he gets lazy, you need to be on him.” 

My thoughts? 

I worry about a player with a history of not being in shape, and whose hockey sense is poor. Those players seldom if ever find a level of consistency that earns a coach’s trust. 

I also believe in second chances, and as a journalist, will abide by the court’s verdict when evaluating the person. 

If Virtanen can change that opinion of his on-ice game, good on him. 

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