Virtanen finds comfort in constant feedback
Whoever said talk is cheap doesn’t understand the crucial line of communication between a young player and head coach.
Jake Virtanen constantly hears from Travis Green.
The Vancouver Canucks winger may not always like the tone that can be both critical and caring, but he knows where he stands.
There’s no time for his mind to wander or wondering why his game has faltered in a physical sense because it’s drilled home in every on- or off-ice session.
That didn’t happen with Willie Desjardins. The coach and player rarely conversed.
“Greener talks to me almost every day, whether I’m skating well or playing bad,” Virtanen said Tuesday following an optional game-day skate. “It’s good to have an honest coach. If you’re not playing well and you’re not getting told anything, you don’t want to keep playing the same way.
“You want to get better. He didn’t think my game in Anaheim (Thursday) was the best and said I didn’t get a hit.”
Well, Virtanen did have one, but the message was clear.
That’s all any player can ask, whether it’s a proven veteran or a 21-year-old still trying to find a complete game.
Green wants Virtanen to ramp up his physical game.
He’s skating better. He’s more responsible in all three zones and was good in puck retrievals and transition when playing with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
However, Virtanen is averaging 1.1 hits per game — he has 17 in 15 games — while Derek Dorsett is averaging 1.9 per outing with 33 in his first 17 games.
It’s almost like Virtanen takes hitting for granted because it comes naturally for the 2014 firstround pick. When he hits, he hurts.
But with so many other aspects of his game needing attention, the hitting went away.
Last season in Utica there were constant video sessions with Green. This season, it’s assistant coach Manny Malhotra who will show Virtanen a clip of something he did wrong followed by one of something he did well. The repetitive process is designed to make Virtanen play on instinct and not second-guess himself.
“I was shown a clip where a guy makes a pass and a second or two (later) I come in,” Virtanen said.
“I’ve got to be on top of the guy on the forecheck.”
However, all the direction and understanding didn’t make sitting out Tuesday against the Los Angeles Kings any easier.
“These are the games you want to play as a physical guy and a bigger-body guy,” Virtanen added.
With the Canucks coming off two straight losses, shutting down redhot Anze Kopitar and revitalized linemate Dustin Brown was going to be a pressing priority. So was finding goals in transition against the league’s top-rated penalty kill and second-stingiest defence.
Add the fact that 17 Kings weigh at least 200 pounds — including the hulking 224-pound Kopitar — and you could argue Virtanen should have played.
Aligning with Brandon Sutter and Dorsett would have forced Virtanen to bring his total game.
Pressuring the Kings’ top line to play in its own zone would have triggered a physical forechecking response from Virtanen and he would have been a threat to either score in transition or be a net-front presence. That assignment fell on Brendan Gaunce and to his credit, Virtanen was able to rationalize the lineup decision.
“I’m still young and Gaunce is a good player and has played for Green for a while and has that trust,” Virtanen said.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s about staying positive.”
With two extra forwards, the battle for ice time is exactly what Green wants. And sometimes you learn more about a player when he’s not playing than when he is.
Does he sulk or does he suck it up? There’s nothing to suggest that Virtanen is miffed by sitting out because the learning curve in the NHL is an everyday thing for a young player.
“I’m not worried about it,” said Virtanen, who has two goals and two assists. “I had a great start to the season and he (Green) just wants more aggressiveness. On the back check, if I can finish guys, it gives our defence a little bit more time with the puck.
“I talked with him today and he said I practised well yesterday (Monday).”
Green hasn’t lost sight of the fact that becoming a power forward is hard. You have to skate well, hit hard and finish scoring chances.
All that is hard, but hitting shouldn’t be for Virtanen.
“It’s part of the game that Jake has to bring,” said Green. “He’s a powerful skater and a big man and it’s a fine line between finding hits and finding the puck.”
Talking about his relationship with Travis Green, Canuck Jake Virtanen says “it’s good to have an honest coach.”