The Canucks are Letting Jake Virtanen Flounder in “Limbo-Land”

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:29 am by Jeremy Davis

For the second straight year, there are concerns in Canuck Nation about the deployment of young Jake Virtanen. The sixth overall pick in 2014 is averaging under 10 minutes a night so far this season, and the frustration is beginning to show. Be it a phantom injury, ice time woes, a lack of confidence, or a lack of trust from the coach, Virtanen’s 2016-17 campaign isn’t starting off the way that we were hoping.

While the comparisons to William Nylander and Nik Ehlers are always going to be there, at this point it’s best to view Virtanen on his own, and the biggest question right now is: is he being handled properly by Vancouver’s coaching staff and management. To that, I’d have to answer with a resounding no.

We’ll have to get this out of the way from the get go: yes, Willie Nylander is off to a hot start in Toronto, and yes, Nik Ehlers is playing in Winnipeg’s top six. For that matter, yes, Nick Ritchie is playing and producing on Anaheim’s top line. That being said, any comparisons between these players are criticisms of the selection itself, and not a criticism of Virtanen as a hockey player. It’s not his fault that he was picked sixth overall.

In fact, it’s hard not to wonder if the pedigree that comes with a high selection hasn’t been more of a detriment than anything to this point. But we’ll get to that.

Virtanen’s Current Deployment

For starters, Virtanen has only played in five of the Canucks’ seven games this season, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that he’d have played even fewer if it weren’t for injuries to Anton Rodin, Alex Burrows and Derek Dorsett. Willie Desjardins’ apparent reluctance to use Virtanen seems indicative of a coach dressing a player only because he has to.

Virtanen 2016-17 TOI per Game

This chart shows Virtanen’s ice time over his five games this season, plotted against the average 5-on-5 ice time of first, second, third and fourth liners (derived from the averages of the first, second, third and fourth groups of 90 players that played at least 400 5-on-5 minutes in 2015-16 sorted by average TOI).

The chart indicates that Virtanen’s ice time has hovered mostly around or below the average 5-on-5 minutes for a fourth line player, with the October 16th game against Carolina being the exception – in that game, he played as much as your average third line player does at even strength. His season average is 9:56, which is below average for a fourth liner.

Beyond just the ice time, other trends are apparent. One in his rotating cast of linemates, as displayed in the following chart:

Virtanen Linemates

Note: There is a problem with the TOI data from the October 16th game, which is why that data is missing.

While Virtanen has seen spent chunks of time with the same players (three games with Bo Horvat, three games with Sven Baertschi), he has yet to play two games in a row with the same linemates. The only line that has occurred multiple times is the Baertschi-Horvat-Virtanen unit that fans often clamour for. The two appearances of this trio occurred a week apart.

Notice also that the percentage of his ice time that he actually spends with the line is rather small, and actually decreasing in each game. This is a result of Willie’s in-game tinkering – which often amounts to sitting Virtanen for several shifts, particular in the third period of games, while his linemates play with someone else and Virtanen makes spot appearances with other players.

This brings me to another trend: his ice time slowly lessens as the game moves along. This is fairly common among younger players, and was certainly a theme last season. It indicates that Desjardins doesn’t trust Virtanen in close and late situations, regardless of whether there’s evidence to indicate that he’s done poorly in those scenarios.

Dissatisfaction

Virtanen has spoken out recently about these issues, causing a bit of a stir in the local market. He had this to say about his constantly changing linemates:

The lines have been changed pretty much everyday, so you’re not really sure who you’re going to be playing with. If you’re gonna be in the lineup, you like to be able to get chemistry with your teammates and your linemates especially. Being with Bo and Baertsch, we do have chemistry and stuff, but when we’re switched around a lot, it’s kinda hard to get that line going all the time.

Chemistry has always been a difficult thing to quantify, and we do have a tendency to brush off what we can’t assign numbers to. The issue of constantly playing with different players came up last season in regards to Alex Burrows, and a couple of ex-NHLers had some enlightening quotes on the subject that I felt really portrayed the importance of playing with players that you’re familiar with.

This quote comes from former Cancuks-turned-analyst Garry Valk, whose notes on player tendencies are particularly interesting:

I would hate to have a different linemate every game. I just couldn’t play like that. I just couldn’t do it, because you have to trust where a player is going before he goes there, there has to be a read involved, it’s like a quarterback always trying to work with new receivers: it doesn’t work. You have to try to understand what the guys tendencies are. Is a guy gonna run a pick for me, is he more of a shooter, can he handle passes on his backhand, or have I just gotta pass it to him on the forehand? Is he a hit-first guy, or a stick-first – all of these tendencies of a linemate get groomed in and through repetition throughout the year, and right now there’s no trust, there’s no consistency.

Trust versus Confidence

“In reality I wanna go out there and be an every shift kinda guy,” Virtanen said. “Five to seven minutes of ice, it’s pretty hard to get stuff going when you’re sitting for so long. You’re sitting on the bench and after 10, 11 minutes, you finally get back out there. It’s tough to get back out there, but that’s just part of the game.”

Willie Desjardins placed the onus firmly onto Virtanen to improve his play before he will be given that extra ice time.

“Jake is a player, with his talent and ability, he needs to be a top nine forward for sure and probably a top six,” Desjardins said yesterday. “He has the ability to do that. We have to get him to that spot where he can do it. We have to get him back to that point again where he’s hungry and motivated. When he gets himself to the point in his game where he’s structurally sound, he can be that player. He’s good enough to do that. But right now he’s not at that point.”

Spending copious amounts of time warming the bench and then having to hit the ice at a moments’ notice can’t be easy, especially with the expectation hanging over you that if you don’t have an impact, you could be sitting for even longer. “I don’t think [I feel dangerous] yet,” he admitted. “I still feel like if I’m getting out there and playing a regular shift, I’ll be able to do that.”

Some in Vancouver viewed Virtanen’s comments as “whining” or “entitlement”, though it appears that Virtanen at least has the support of his teammates.

When asked whether he perceived Virtanen’s comments to be motivated by entitlement, Jeff Paterson (who was present in the media scrum) painted a very different picture.

“My sense of Jake Virtanen is that he’s just a lost soul right now,” Jeff told the TSN 1040 morning show yesterday. “He’s a 20-year old, he’s sort of looking his age. All young players want more ice time and all young players would like to pick their linemates and keep the same linemates, we’ve heard that before. That wasn’t my takeaway. My takeaway was that this guy is struggling with a crisis of confidence right now.”

Confidence from the player and trust from the coach are intrinsically linked together, but there is a chicken-and-the-egg scenario at play when determining which is influencing the other. Is it fair to expect Virtanen to work his way into Willie’s good books when he’s questioning every move he makes?

“Last year with a couple of my goals, I had speed coming through the neutral zone,” Virtanen recalled. “And now it’s ‘should I go, should I not go?’. The NHL’s a really structured game, so you don’t want to be caught in the wrong spot. At the same time, you’re always concerned because the margin for error is so small, if you make a mistake it can be in the back of your net real quick.”

TSN’s Craig Button proposed a solution to Virtanen’s problem of confidence. “What allows you to build confidence in your game?” he pondered. “It’s about having success. It’s about being able to go and repeat what you do well.”

“If you haven’t been able to string along a period of time where you’ve had that success, now you’re in the league and now you’re trying not to make a mistake. And when you’re trying not to make a mistake, you’re being a little bit cautious, it’s hard to excel.”

“Limbo-land”

A variety of poll questions were posited yesterday by the various shows on TSN 1040, most revolving around the Virtanen situation. One asked whether the Canucks were handling Virtanen properly, while the other asked what they should be doing and presented a selection of options, including gifting him more ice time, sending him to the minor leagues, or waiting for him to earn more ice time.

It seems clear at this point that the only thing Jake is earning for himself right now is more confusion and frustration. If the player is stricken with a lack of confidence, second guessing every move out of fear of a benching, and generally playing well below his capabilities, I find it hard to believe that the correct solution is to continue to put him in the situation that diminished his confidence in the first place.

The way I see it, the current strategy is not working. The coaching staff needs to take one of two routes from here: either place him with consistent linemates and give him more reasonable ice time (even 13-15 minutes per night in total) and see if he works through the issues. I understand the argument that gifting ice time sets a bad precedent, but I’m not talking about first line minutes and power play time here – just a regular shift with consistent linemates at even strength. That, or send him to Utica to build confidence while facing competition that he may in fact be better suited to play against at this point. Honestly, I’d be supportive of either option.

Instead, Virtanen is stuck in “Limbo-land”, as Blake Price put it yesterday, and as a result, he’s floundering. “They (young players) are so worried about making mistakes that they just freeze up, they can’t do what they’re supposed to do. At eight minutes a night, he’s not helping the Vancouver Canucks, he’s not helping himself, so I think it is probably time to get him down to Utica.”

If the problem is that Willie won’t give him more responsibility because he doesn’t think Jake can handle it, then why are you putting him in your lineup in the first place? You’re not doing him any favours by playing him under 10 minutes a night. This seems to be an issue of the Canucks needing to determine what they see Jake Virtanen as.

“If you see Jake Virtanen as a fourth line player, okay, keep him up. I don’t think when you draft a player sixth overall that you see him as a fourth line player,” Craig Button stated. “So what do you see him as, and what does he need to do to become that player that you think he can become?”

“Up to this point I’ve always felt that he should be here,” Jeff Paterson told the TSN 1040 morning show. “I’ve felt that the Canucks need his skill set at the National Hockey League level, but boy I walked out of that locker room yesterday thinking he should probably be on the first flight to Utica.”

Why Won’t They Send Him to Utica?

There are a couple of theories on this that have been floating around since the beginning of the season. One is the injury to Anton Rodin – some figured that if Rodin was healthy, Virtanen would have been sent to Utica to start the year. Tough to say whether there’s any weight to that, given how they’re continuing to handle the situation. More than anything, it seems like they desperately want to keep Virtanen in Vancouver, even if that means putting him in a detrimental position.

There’s some reason to believe that part of the motivation behind this is P.R. driven. Sending Virtanen – a sixth overall pick and a local boy – to a minor league affiliate across the continent certainly seems at odds with the club’s current marketing campaign of “watching the next chapter unfold before your eyes”. Virtanen is supposed to be putting butts in seats right now. Oddly enough, I don’t think that fans are motivated to pay large chunks of money for the opportunity to watch Virtanen play for eight minutes out of a two and a half hour arena experience.

The whole situation seems like a microcosm of the struggles that the organization has been dealing with since the new regime took over (a time period during which I have generally been supportive of the team, by the way). They want the future, and they don’t want to wait for it. So instead of dealing with a little bit of delayed gratification, they declare that the future is already here, paying no mind to whether they’re doing more harm than good to one of their core pieces.

The irony is that they need only check the waiver wire yesterday to see a pessimistic example of what Virtanen could become is he’s mishandled. Like Virtanen, Magnus Paajarvi is a former high draft pick (10th overall) that was supposed to play a power forward game, but he never quite met expectations after a modestly successful rookie season at age 19. Now Paajarvi has finished his third tour of the waiver wire, and three straight times 29 times have passed on taking him for free.

That isn’t to say that I think Virtanen is headed in that direction – I’m still quite bullish on the Abbotsford native myself. Same as the Ottawa Senators are still bullish on high draft pick and former World Junior star Curtis Lazar, despite sending him to the AHL to start the season.

“Get him down to Utica, get him playing,” Button says. “Get him playing on the power play and in those offensive situations, so not only can he have some success, but he can build confidence with that success. And I think that’s how you ultimately develop a player and get what you want out of a player, and the player is able to give you what you thought he could give you.”