After Canada crashes out of the World Junior Championship, plenty of people are laying the blame at the feet of Canucks rookie Jake Virtanen
Go ahead, count them. There aren’t more than a handful. In any given year, there’s maybe six players in the NHL having legitimate power forward seasons.
Fewer, if you want to count those who can do it consistently. And by do it, the best measure I’ve seen, is score 25 goals and average 1.5 hits a game while lugging around a 210-pound body up and down the ice for most of 82 games.
Jake Virtanen has this potential. He was blessed with size, gifted with foot speed, and though you wouldn’t know it if you only watched him at the World Junior championship, he can score.
It’s what makes him, potentially, both rare and special.
Because, generally, if you want a power forward on your team and you didn’t draft and develop him, good freakin’ luck to you.
It’s why the Canucks, with remarkable sureness, drafted Virtanen with the No. 6 overall pick in 2014.
“I think he has a unique skill set,” GM Jim Benning explained. “The game has got fast. More so this year. It’s hard to get to the net again. But he has the size and strength to get there.
“Even it that game (Saturday), you saw two or three instances where he put his head down and he bulled his way to the net. “That’s a special skill set.” Amazing, Benning was able to pull positives from “that game.” The rest of the country was otherwise occupied eviscerating the Canucks 19-year-old winger for his three penalties.
You can make a strong case those penalties are what cost Team Canada, the first of which pretty much derailed what looked to be a Canadian locomotive.
The game marked the end of an incredibly disappointing tournament for Virtanen, who finished with one point. Loaned to Hockey Canada to to handle the puck, gain confidence, and score some goals, he managed to do nothing but infuriate the country’s rabid fans, always hungry for a scapegoat this time of year if Canada doesn’t win gold.
“It’s a team game,” Benning said. “It’s not just one player. I’m sure he would have liked to have those penalties back, but I’m sure there are other guys on the team who took penalties who would like those back too.
“I thought he worked and competed hard.
“It almost looked like he tried too hard sometimes, and sometimes when you do that things don’t go your way.”
Virtanen will be reporting back to the Canucks, initially.
Whether or not he lasts the rest of the season with the team is a huge question, and it’s one the Canucks will be discussing for the next few days.
The Canucks have set a deadline of Jan. 10 to reach a decision, which is, interestingly, the trade deadline in the WHL.
There are plenty of good reasons for Virtanen to remain a Canuck. You can probably start at the fact that when his WHL season ended last year, he was near 230 pounds, about 15 pounds more than what the Canucks would consider his playing weight should be.
“We have control of his environment, everything from his workouts to what he eats while he’s in the room,” Benning said. “We work with him after practice on skill development. And, I think, over the course of the first half of the year, he showed glimpses of the player we think he can be.”
But there is risk. At this stage of his career, Virtanen needs playing time. He needs games. He needs to get a feel for the puck. He needs to score goals.
You want to know why the smaller Jared McCann has made the transition to the NHL look smoother than Virtanen?
“Because he’s a skilled player, and he has good hands and he’s smart, it’s easier to make the adjustment to the pace of the league,” Benning said.
Playing in Vancouver, Virtanen won’t be the man.
He won’t be in big-time offensive situations, and in turn, he won’t be developing that part of his game, which, really, is the most critical in his development. Because for Virtanen to live up to that No. 6 overall selection, he has to become an offensive force, eventually, as a pro.
“We have to make sure we develop that skill,” Benning said. “(His role and offensive development) are things we are going to talk about for the next few days.
“We’re going to meet as a management team and we’re going to discuss both the positives and negatives of keeping him.
“At the end of the day, we want to do what’s best for his development.” The lean? If I had to guess, he’s staying.