Jake Virtanen was back at practice with the Canucks on Monday after serving a two-game suspension for a late hit on San Jose's Roman Polak last week.
It's a ban that likely would have drawn a great deal more outcry if Virtanen was a bad hockey player. Most fans want the Canucks to lose right now, and a player with Virtanen's speed, shot, developing skill, and ability to drive possession can only hinder them. Good riddance to good rubbish, as they say.
Still, while fans weren't about to quibble with the suspension, there was some surprise that the Canucks didn't bother to do so either, as Jason Botchford pointed out:
As far as the suspension there was a clear case to be made for Virtanen. There was no injury. The hit wasn’t a head shot. And the Canucks have seen their best player and captain, Henrik Sedin, victimized by a couple of cheap shots and with no supplemental discipline this season (McNabb or Grabovski).
Players, the coach or even management could have stressed how unfair the Virtanen decision can look given that backdrop. They all took a pass.
I'm willing to ignore the McNabb and Grabovski arguments. It is true, just as it will probably always be true, that the Department of Player Safety has had responses that don't line up with this one. The DOPS remains inconsistent, which makes it very easy to attack the overall disciplinary system any time you disagree with an individual decision.
But it really just comes off as sour grapes. Yes, this incident doesn't hold up well with the incident you cherry-picked for comparison. Few will. It's clear the NHL is handling these things, occasionally to their detriment, on a case-by-case basis. But as Willie Desjardins told Botchford, that's not really Vancouver's problem:
“That’s for the league. We wish there was more on that hit. We thought it was a tough hit. But the league ruled otherwise. You have to move on.”
As for this hit and it's suspendability, well, it's tough to disagree with Desjardins' clinical assessment: “It was a bit of a late hit. You can’t do that. He has to learn from it.”
Willie's words were echoed by Henrik Sedin, as Daniel (PITB's Daniel, not Henrik's) pointed out last week:
On the other hand, you can’t get around the lateness and blindsidedness of the hit, and Henrik Sedin didn’t even try: “It was late, blindside. I don’t think he hit his head but...it was a late hit.”
When even your captain says it was late, you know it was really late.
That's very true. It's also very rare. Most of the time, teammates rally around the offender, regardless of his guilt, as any other response is seen as throwing him under the bus. It can be infuriating, watching loyalty override common sense. (Shout-out to the GOP and their Trump conundum!)
But only the most homeric of fanboys could argue that Virtanen's hit was fine. Hell, watch the slowed-down look in the video above. Virtanen commits to the hit only after he sees Polak get rid of the puck. And then he hits him blindside. Primary head contact or no, it's a disgusting hit that can inflict lasting injury in numerous ways. Both Polak and Virtanen are lucky he was okay.
When you have a 19-year-old who likes to play with an edge, has the speed to arrive at a hit in time, and will probably be stapling guys in this league for a long time, reinforcing this sort of negative behaviour now by dumbly defending him as a teammate could have damaging, long-term consequences for the entire league. He may not be a teammate forever, remember.
Think of how former Canuck Raffi Torres hits, and how difficult it appears to be for him to change from the type of physical game that was encouraged before we realized how dangerous it was. If the league is committed to stamping out dangerous hits, that means condemning them in every instance, even if the offender sits next to you on the team charter.
The Canucks haven't done a lot right this season, but throwing Jake Virtanen under the bus was the correct call.