Vir­ta­nen’s value keeps on go­ing up

Fans’ Shot­gun Jake salute helps Canuck have fun while im­prov­ing his game

The Province - - SPORTS - BEN KUZMA bkuzma@post­media.com twit­ter.com/benkuzma

BOS­TON — There’s only one set­ting on the Jake Vir­ta­nen heater.

It’s high. It’s al­ways go­ing to be high.

And whether Vir­ta­nen is tak­ing first-line shifts, is taken off the top trio in the third pe­riod or get­ting two shifts in over­time — all that hap­pened Tues­day in De­troit — there’s an emerg­ing game in the Van­cou­ver Canucks right-winger that Travis Green mon­i­tors like the stock mar­ket.

Whether his play is up or down, the head coach needs to re­act like any wise in­vestor be­cause Vir­ta­nen’s value is ris­ing. Seven points in his first 16 games are en­cour­ag­ing — es­pe­cially five goals that took him un­til Dec. 21 of last sea­son to match — but he’s also first in club take-aways (15), fourth in hits (34) and vastly im­proved at 10th in give­aways (5).

Last sea­son, Vir­ta­nen led the club in take-aways with 51, but his 32 give­aways were only ex­ceeded up front by Daniel Sedin with 37. He also led for­wards in hits (156) and was fifth in shots (130). So sta­tis­ti­cally, the 22-year-old New West­min­ster na­tive and Ab­bots­ford-raised hockey prod­uct is trend­ing in the right di­rec­tion.

“I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have put Jake out in over­time last year,” Green said Thurs­day be­fore his club faced the Bru­ins at the TD Gar­den in Bos­ton. “With his skat­ing and the strength he has, that part of his game is suited for that.

“And he has learned and un­der­stands the de­fen­sive side of the 3-on-3 which is very im­por­tant be­cause you’re go­ing to give up odd­man rushes if you’re on the wrong side of a player be­cause it hap­pens fast.”

And be­cause it’s such a quick game with quick de­ci­sions, Vir­ta­nen was lim­ited to just 3:02 in the third pe­riod Tues­day in De­troit and re­placed on the top line by Bren­dan Leip­sic.

How­ever, Vir­ta­nen would log 15:59, his third-high­est min­utes of the sea­son, and that in­cluded two over­time shifts and 1:57 of ac­tion. But ev­ery shift mat­ters to Green.

“I didn’t like parts of his game that night and Jake knows he usu­ally won’t play as much,” added Green. “It’s no dif­fer­ent than any other player. But I have a good sense when he’s on or off and he’s been on a lot more this year.”

Vir­ta­nen knew he made mis­cues in De­troit and a day to re-set speaks to his growth. He’s not mad. He’s de­ter­mined.

“I could def­i­nitely sense some­thing with Travis,” re­called Vir­ta­nen. “There was the off­side where they (Wings) scored and was called off with a chal­lenge, but I’ve got to make a bet­ter play. I put it (puck) in the far cor­ner in­stead of short — just lit­tle things like that. That could have been it, but I’ve got to be bet­ter in my D-zone, too.”

How­ever, Vir­ta­nen has been good enough to get power-play time and those over­time shifts speak to suf­fi­cient progress in the way he pro­cesses and plays.

“It’s nice,” said Vir­ta­nen. “I love play­ing OT and there’s lots of room out there. I can use my speed and be fast. And I feel like Travis has seen me play 3-on-3 be­fore and knows I can cre­ate space. And if the puck is turned over, I can get back quick and stop things or cre­ate a turnover.

“Ob­vi­ously, it’s hav­ing that trust be­tween us. He’s been putting me out late in games and I’m feel­ing con­fi­dent. I’m hold­ing on to the puck longer and not just forc­ing a play if I have guys on me.”

Yet, amid the end­less scru­tiny, Vir­ta­nen is also hav­ing fun. A lot of fun.

Part of it is mesh­ing with an emerg­ing younger core in a ros­ter tran­si­tion. And part of that is be­com­ing a fo­cal part of so­cial me­dia — es­pe­cially with the Shot­gun Jake hi­lar­ity when he scores. The Twit­ter takes and videos of hockey fa­nat­ics con­sum­ing a cel­e­bra­tory beer as quickly as pos­si­ble are not lost on Vir­ta­nen.

In­stead of end­less Twit­ter time­line streams ex­am­in­ing ev­ery as­pect of his game, the faith­ful can’t wait for the next Vir­ta­nen goal and a run to the fridge or the Rogers Arena con­ces­sion for a brew.

“It’s un­real,” he chuck­led. “I re­ally en­joy it — es­pe­cially be­ing in my home­town. My brother sent me a pic­ture of some place in Ab­bots­ford that has beers now that are named af­ter the whole thing. So, it’s pretty cool. All my bud­dies have been send­ing me pic­tures of it.”

Keep­ing a bal­ance be­tween be­ing hard on a player and re­ward­ing pro­fi­ciency is the fine line for Green. He knows Vir­ta­nen bet­ter than most. He knows what but­tons to push and when to push them.

“We have to be care­ful,” he stressed. “There’s teach­ing and be­ing hard on a player and there’s not tak­ing away con­fi­dence. A lot of time it comes back to the player. Does he de­serve the treat­ment and does he de­serve crit­i­cism to move on and learn from it?

“The heat is al­ways on but it’s keep­ing your con­fi­dence. Be­liev­ing in your­self is the best way to play.”

— THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Canucks’ Jake Vir­ta­nen has seven points in his first 16 games and is get­ting power-play time.

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