The socks were the giveaway.
At Canucks practice, the players usually split into two groups: one wearing white jerseys and one wearing blue jerseys. Each group wears socks to match: white socks with white jerseys, blue socks with blue jerseys.
On Tuesday, Jake Virtanen was wearing white socks with a blue jersey.
Sure enough, when it came time for line rushes, Nikolay Goldobin skated with Bo Horvat and Josh Leivo, while Virtanen was the odd man out. While he occasionally switched in on Horvat’s line for Leivo, it seemed clear that Virtanen would be a healthy scratch for the Canucks’ next game.
Of course, Canucks head coach Travis Green is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to future lineup decisions, so he wouldn’t confirm whether Virtanen was coming out or not.
“I didn’t say he was healthy-scratched...We had seven guys in blue today, so — I haven’t made up my mind on the lineup,” he said.
It would make sense if Virtanen was a scratch on Wednesday. While Virtanen had been trending in the right direction recently, he's taken a step back in his last couple games. Shot attempts have been 28-9 for the Canucks’ opponents at 5-on-5 over the last two games and his ice time has reflected his struggles, down to 10:42 last game, his lowest in three months. He has no goals in his last 12 games and just one assist, though it was on the game-winner on Sunday.
When asked what Green needs to see from Virtanen, he said “Consistency,” then expanded on that thought.
“We need him to be a consistent player,” he said. “He’s one of the young guys that — it’s well known that we’ve done a lot of work with Jake and I like where his game’s progressed. When he’s on, he’s very impactful. He hasn’t had the consistency in his game that we’re looking for here, as of late.”
While Green wouldn’t confirm whether Virtanen would come out of the lineup, he spoke generally about what he expects from a healthy scratch.
“If any young player gets scratched, they’ve gotta learn from it,” he said. “They’ve gotta listen to the coaches, put in the work, and improve.”
That’s been the task for Goldobin, who has been a healthy scratch for the last three games. Green described his approach with young players as “honest love” rather than tough love, focussing on being forthright about where players need to improve.
Goldobin certainly deserves to get back in the lineup, considering he’s still fourth on the team in scoring despite sitting out several games.
“Whenever Goldy plays next,” said Green, “I’m looking for him to play his best game, have effort away from the puck, create when he has it, fight to get pucks back when he’s in a puck battle, fight to protect the puck, win one-on-one battles — everything that you do when you win hockey games.
“Obviously, it’s hard for him when he’s not playing right now and he’s gotta work hard off the ice and practice time is important for him. Some of the drills that we do...I said it a few weeks ago, when he’s not playing, the guys that aren’t playing with him have to do certain drills that are designed around helping his weaknesses.”
If Virtanen is scratched, he’ll likely get similar treatment. What’s intriguing is the timing of the potential scratch: just before the All-Star break, where players usually get some time off. Perhaps the timing is to send a message to Virtanen about how he should spend his break.
We’ll find out Wednesday if Virtanen is out of the lineup and Goldobin is in. If Virtanen is out, it’s a significant message to send to one of the four Canucks that hasn’t missed a game this season.