Jake Virtanen, the first draft pick of the Jim Benning regime, is currently in the AHL, playing with the Utica Comets. This is probably a good thing; as much as Virtanen is better than the likes of Jack Skille, Michael Chaput, and Jayson Megna, what he likely needs most right now is plenty of ice time and a coach that can dedicate time to his development rather than strictly to winning and saving his job.
But there’s one player who absolutely did not have to earn his ice time this season: Troy Stecher.
It may seem like an odd comparison, both because Stecher is a defenceman and because of how good Stecher has been this season, but at no point did Stecher work his way up the lineup, earning more ice time and responsibility as he went.
Right from the start of pre-season, Stecher was put in a position to succeed, playing alongside Alex Edler and given significant ice time. To Stecher’s credit, he took that opportunity and ran with it, but you can’t deny that he was gifted that opportunity in the first place.
Even though he did get sent down to Utica, that had more to do with waiver eligibility and the Canucks’ glut of NHL-caliber defencemen than making Stecher earn his way up. As soon as there was an injury, Stecher was on the first flight to Vancouver. Did he start on the third pairing with Luca Sbisa? No, he was immediately put on the top pairing with Edler. He played over 22 minutes in his first NHL game and is averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game.
Stecher clearly deserves that much ice time—he’s been a breath of fresh air in a season full of smog—but he didn’t, strictly speaking, earn that ice time.
Virtanen, on the other hand, despite being billed as a potential top-six forward, has not been given the opportunities that a top-six forward would need to succeed. Instead, he has averaged just over 10 minutes per game, with no power play time, and he’s been bounced between lines. When he did get the chance to skate with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi on a scoring line, it was an abbreviated stay.
I’m not arguing that Virtanen shouldn’t have to earn his ice time. There’s definitely something to be said for developing better habits before being moved up the lineup. But there’s also something to be said for putting a player in a position to succeed.
The Canucks can point to players that have seen success from the Drake plan—starting from the bottom (NSFW)—like Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi. Horvat worked his way up the lineup last season, while Baertschi was a frequent healthy scratch until things seemed to click. Just ignore that Baertschi was playing well even before he was put in the press box and that Horvat would likely have succeeded regardless because of who he is.
You could also point to players who appear to have been gifted ice time and roles beyond what you could say they have earned, such as Linden Vey and Markus Granlund.
Willie Desjardins has deployed tough love to a number of young players, most recently Nikita Tryamkin, who sat for the start of the season after coming to training camp in less than ideal shape. Probably a nonagon, because come on, man. Nobody’s got time for a nonagon.
Tryamkin was praised for putting in the extra work in practice and training to get himself ready to play and has performed admirably on a third pairing with Luca Sbisa. It has been heavily implied, if never outright stated, that Virtanen hasn’t put in the same level of work in practice.
If that’s the case, it’s probably for the best that he’s in Utica right now, developing the habits and confidence that he’ll need to be a top-six forward in the NHL. It’s just hard to swallow all the talk of earning ice time when someone like Stecher never had to go through the same process and is all the better for avoiding it.