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Did the Canucks break Jake Virtanen?

We left you alone for five minutes...
Jake Virtanen

The Vancouver Canucks may have broken their shiny new toy. Gifted with a rare high first round pick in what’s turned out to be a pretty deep 2014 draft, the Canucks went slightly off the board to select Abbotsford native Jake Virtanen with the sixth overall pick. Still available at that time were William Nylander, currently fourth in rookie scoring with 13 points, and Nikolaj Ehlers, a leading scorer right now in Winnipeg with 16 points.

Jake? He’s got one assist in ten games. He’s played the entire season on the fourth line, and he’s been demoted to the Utica Comets twice.

Guys. We left you alone for like five minutes and you already broke him.

The Canucks passed on two reasonably safe, high-end prospects in Nylander and Ehlers because they saw something in Virtanen’s game that was priceless: the potential for Vancouver’s first real power forward since the departure of one-man wrecking crew, Kyle Wellwood.

Indeed, Virtanen scored 45 goals for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, all while carrying a chip on his shoulder that’s bigger than The Mountain’s pet rock. The theory went that if Virtanen could meet his potential, he’d ride roughshod over “soft” players like Nylander and Ehlers.

I mean, NHL fans had recently witnessed two big, tough teams win the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles and Boston. Pick a player who can dominate the other team physically while scoring highlight reel goals? And he’s local and has swoopy hair? Yes please.

Most power forwards take a bit longer to develop, as they must balance the physical side of their game alongside their scoring prowess. It’s therefore common to let such players cook in the minor leagues, bringing them up slowly. So, obviously Vancouver opted to dump Virtanen into the big leagues at age 19 with zero pro experience after a thoroughly “meh” showing at training camp, because reasons.

In training camp last year, 19-year-old rookie Jared McCann made a compelling case for himself to stay with the team. He scored very well in pre-season games and looked ready to make an impact. Sure enough when the chips fell McCann remained, but perplexingly, so too did Virtanen. Jake had done little to impress in his pre-season showings aside from knocking Connor McDavid flat. Yet he fell victim to the same void Bo Horvat was in the previous season: he was perceived to be too good for junior league, but ineligible to be sent to the AHL due to his age.

Virtanen stayed in the NHL for the rest of the 2015-2016 season, and not for nothing. His flashes of brilliance are enticing. His first career goal was a stunner. His speed has speed. And yeah, he hits like a freight train. So what’s the hitch?

Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins insists that they’re looking for a consistent game from Jake before he wins more ice time, citing Sven Baertschi as a positive example of this philosophy in action. Yet consistency is the last thing they’ve offered Virtanen. He has been shuffled around the bottom six, averaging around nine and a half minutes per game. He was sent down to Utica for two games. Then he was called up. Then he was immediately sent back down again.

Does he have room to grow his 200-foot game? Sure. Jake’s advanced stats aren’t the gaudiest. His CF is 44.74%. But it’s hard to read too much into that. Bo Horvat has a humble 48.28% with a heck of a larger sample size. And for all the grief that Desjardins gives him, Virtanen hasn’t appeared noticeably deficient in the few looks we’ve had this season.

One counter argument is that a great player finds a way to succeed. That’s often true, but even a great player will struggle when thrown up and down the lineup.

Another is that there could be more going on than meets the eye. Jake has already been vocal about the fact that he’d like more ice time. We don’t have access to what happens in the locker room so we can only speculate.

And then there’s the stance that Jake might not have the tools at all. It’s possible. In some ways, he was a safer pick than Nylander or Ehlers, because even if his offensive game doesn’t develop, he has the frame and speed to play an effective role in the bottom six. Maybe the Canucks anticipate that. Still, I don’t buy it, at least not yet. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to prove anything.

It’s not terribly difficult to spoil a good prospect; just ask the Columbus Blue Jackets. Ask too much of them too soon, burden them with too much pressure from management and fans, pigeonhole them into a role they aren’t going to thrive in. Done. Broken. But the easiest way to ensure a young player won’t succeed? Starve them of ice time.

You know what I think happened? Vancouver management got drunk on the sweet success of Mr. Bo-Dangles. Horvat was in a similar situation when he entered the league, but benefited from having a much more complete game. He was in a great position to diligently work his way up the lineup.

Jake, meanwhile, does not have anywhere near the complete game that Horvat does, and yet Vancouver seems convinced he should follow the same blueprint. It’s not working. His path to becoming an NHL regular is a bit rockier now. So what’s the best thing management can do to help un-break him?

Play him, dummies! Virtanen has been returned to Utica and should feature prominently in the Comets’ top six. He needs those minutes and the confidence they’ll bring. His last game with the Comets he registered six shots on net. More of that please.

Secondly, while I understand the push to fully educate him on the fundamentals, Jake is a scorer, so let him score. Put him in a position to make an impact on the scoresheet. Let him hone that shot. Plunk him in front of the net and let him pinball opposition defenders.

In any event, the Canucks picked him. No warranty, no returns. So they need to make it work.