Vir­ta­nen finds com­fort in con­stant feed­back

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - BEN KUZMA bkuzma@post­media.com twit­ter.com/ benkuzma

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.”

KEVIN HOFFMAN/GETTY IMAGES

Talk­ing about his re­la­tion­ship with Travis Green, Canuck Jake Vir­ta­nen says “it’s good to have an hon­est coach.”

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