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Right from when he was drafted, there were questions about Jake Virtanen’s ability to make his linemates better. His 45 goals in 71 games in his drafted year got Virtanen picked sixth overall by the Vancouver Canucks, but he had just 26 assists. He primarily scored his goals off the rush, using his speed to go wide on a defenceman and beat a goaltender with his shot, but he rarely looked to set up a teammate.
In the NHL, the defencemen are more mobile and the goaltenders are harder to beat. Virtanen has needed to add another dimension to his game to grow into a top-six forward. While the goals have come early this season, another dimension has started to appear.
One play in the Canucks’ meeting against the Los Angeles Kings demonstrated a change in Virtanen’s game. He got a puck free on the forecheck and Nikolay Goldobin passed it to him off the boards. He was alone in the left faceoff circle.
The old Virtanen wouldn’t have thought twice: he would have turned on the puck immediately to unleash a slap shot. For a moment, it looked like that’s exactly what he was going to do, as he pivoted around the puck and raised his stick up to waist height.
Instead, he sent the puck across the slot to Adam Gaudette, who was streaking up the right side, and Gaudette fired the puck in for the first goal of his career.
It’s not just that pass: Virtanen has been creating more and more scoring chances for his linemates in a way that he never did in previous seasons. According to Darryl Keeping, who tracks the Canucks microstats, Virtanen’s playmaking has significantly improved. He has far more shot assists — passes that directly lead to a shot on goal — than last season.
The pass to Gaudette was superb, but it was a brief moment before the pass that was key: as the puck came to him, Virtanen picked his head up and took a brief glance in the direction of Gaudette. He knew exactly where to put the puck and exactly how much time he had to put it there.
“[Gaudette] was yelling pretty loud for it,” said Virtanen with a smile. “If I shot it, it would’ve looked pretty bad.”
Virtanen agreed that his playmaking has taken a step forward, however, and credits it to a couple things: experience and his work in the off-season.
“The more I’ve played, the more time I feel I have,” he said. “I feel like as a young guy, you’re playing against men, it’s a little bit different. Going into my fourth year pro, you find you have more time on the ice, you think the game a little bit better.”
As an 18-year-old kid in his rookie season, the speed of the game was a wakeup call for Virtanen and it’s easy to understand why he would rush plays and stick with the simple things that made him a success in Junior: speed down the wing and shots from the outside. Now, with experience, the game has seemed to slow down or, from another point of view, he’s realized how much time and space he’s always had.
In addition, Virtanen spent part of his off-season with stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber, which has given him more confidence with the puck.
“I feel like a lot of the stuff I did in the off-season is definitely helping,” he said. “It’s definitely nice to see that paying off.”
His head coach, Travis Green, sees a larger improvement in Virtanen’s game, beyond any one single aspect like playmaking.
“I just think Jake’s overall game is developing, it’s not just his passing,” said Green. It’s his overall attention to detail, his understanding of the game...as you grow in confidence, you probably, as a player, you feel better and you see the ice and everything comes easier and more natural.”
Virtanen certainly isn’t resting on his laurels. He doesn’t want his hot start to the season to fade.
“You take your foot off the pedal and it kinda just goes away,” he said. “So you’ve gotta stay on it and be on top of it all the time.”
21 - As Sportsnet’s Joey Kenward pointed out after Sam Gagner and Adam Gaudette scored against the Kings, the Canucks now have 21 players with at least one goal. No NHL team has more.
19.5% - While the Canucks clearly missed having Brock Boeser on the power play, they managed to score without him, with a respectable power play percentage of 19.5% since his last game on November 2nd.
Stick-taps and Glove-drops
A tap of the stick to Elias Pettersson, who continues to dominate the rookie scoring race with 13 goals and 21 points heading into Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings. He’ll just need to keep an eye on Brady Tkachuk, who picked up right where he left off after his return from injury. He has 7 goals and 13 points in just 13 games.
I’m dropping the gloves with Olli Juolevi’s knee, not that it needs more pain. The prospect defenceman flew into Vancouver to see a specialist, which is concerning. Juolevi has 13 points in 18 games with the Utica Comets in the AHL and the Canucks badly need him to meet his potential.