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Is Jared McCann more likely to make the Canucks than Jake Virtanen?

It’s been assumed all summer that the Canucks’ first round draft pick from 2014 would get every opportunity to make the team out of training camp.
Jared McCann
Does this look like the face of a guy who would steal something from a younger kid? Well, yeah, totally.

It’s been assumed all summer that the Canucks’ first round draft pick from 2014 would get every opportunity to make the team out of training camp. Jim Benning and Trevor Linden have made a verbal commitment to making the team younger and putting a teenager in the lineup for the second season in a row would go a long way toward fulfilling that commitment.

The only question now is which first round pick from 2014 will make the team?

Prior to the start of pre-season, this was an easy question to answer. Jake Virtanen is the golden boy, the 6th overall pick, the local kid with power forward potential, and, of course, the first draft pick of Jim Benning’s GM career. For months, Virtanen’s been pencilled in for at least a 9-game audition.

Lately, however, the Canucks’ other first round pick from 2014 has made some noise. Jared McCann has impressed throughout the pre-season, topped off by his slick one-touch pass to Bo Horvat against the Flames on Saturday.

The arguments in favour of McCann are starting to stack up. McCann had the more impressive post-draft season, racking up 34 goals and 81 points in just 56 games, enough to tie him for 15th in OHL scoring. Virtanen, on the other hand, had a less-impressive 21 goals and 52 points in 50 games, with the caveat that he was coming off a significant surgery that kept him out for the beginning of the season.

It’s also immediately obvious where McCann could slot into the lineup: taking Linden Vey’s job as the fourth-line centre. Vey hasn’t impressed in the pre-season and is even listed at right wing rather than centre on the Canucks’ website. Fans don’t have much confidence in Vey at centre and the same may very well be true of the Canucks’ coaching and management.

McCann also has the two-way pedigree that Willie Desjardins craves from his young players. It’s his Brawndo. Last season, Desjardins expressed doubts that a teenager could make the team if the Canucks were going to make a run for the playoffs, but Horvat proved he could battle against NHL veterans and be responsible defensively.

While this year’s Canucks might have less of a chance to make the playoffs than last year’s edition, Desjardins likely has similar reservations about any teenagers pushing to be on the roster.

Virtanen doesn’t have a reputation as a defensive liability, but the defensive side of his game hasn’t been singled out as a strength either. If it comes down to who can hold their own in their own end of the ice, McCann might have the advantage.

Overall, I would argue that McCann has been the better of the two in the pre-season so far, combining that defensive acumen with impressive offensive skill. McCann has been noticeable for all the right reasons, while Virtanen hasn't stood out the way many expected him to.

That’s not to say that Virtanen doesn’t have his own strengths: the phrase that keeps coming up when you look at Virtanen’s skillset is “NHL ready.” He has NHL-ready size, strength, and speed. His grit and energy, if less-easily-quantifiable, also seem NHL-ready. And he certainly has an NHL-ready shot, as he demonstrated against the Flames on Friday.

There is an outside chance, of course, that both could make the team. Both would need to outperform Brendan Gaunce and Alexandre Grenier or at least show enough over the next week that the idea of losing both of them to their Junior teams for the entire season becomes unpalatable. In that case, the Canucks will have to get a little tricky with their roster manuevers.

The Canucks will likely start the season with a 23-man roster consisting of 2 goaltenders, 7 defencemen, and 14 forwards. Here are the 13 forwards who are almost guaranteed to be on that roster, partly because of waiver eligibility.

Daniel - Henrik - Burrows
Baertschi - Sutter - Vrbata
Higgins - Horvat - Hansen
Prust - Vey - Dorsett

That leaves just one spot open, with one additional spot available after Higgins goes on the IR (he’ll need to start on the roster to give the Canucks cap relief). That means that a player who is not waiver eligible, like Brendan Gaunce, could be sent down to the Comets, then recalled once Higgins is on the IR.

Neither Virtanen nor McCann can be sent down and recalled, of course, as once they’re back in Junior, they’re in Junior for the rest of the season. That means Virtanen and Gaunce could make the team or McCann and Gaunce, but not both Virtanen and McCann, unless someone else who isn’t waiver eligible from those 13 forwards listed above gets sent down to the Comets.

There are two such players: Bo Horvat and Ronalds Kenins. My pick, just for the sake of hilarity, would be Horvat.

Can you imagine Horvat getting cut from camp and sent down to the Comets, even if it's just to perform some salary cap sleight-of-hand? Can you imagine the reaction from casual fans who don’t realize it’s just temporary?