Paper Feature: Has Jake Virtanen finally figured it out?

It might be more accurate to say the Canucks finally figured him out.

Pass it to Bulis

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When you look at the Canucks’ top scorers, it’s the young stars leading the way. Elias Pettersson, unsurprisingly, leads the Canucks in goals and points, with Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser not too far behind.

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Third in goals, however, is a slightly less expected name: Jake Virtanen.

The Canucks’ 2014 first round pick has six goals and eight points in 16 games heading into Tuesday’s meeting with the Detroit Red Wings. While he's not picking up many assists, that shouldn't be a surprise based on his past few seasons with the Canucks and his years in Junior. He’s on pace for 29 goals, however, which would eclipse even the most optimistic projections for this season.

That includes the optimism of Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning, who had high hopes for Virtanen. In a conversation with The Athletic’s Jason Brough, he said, “[Virtanen] needs to try to get 15 or 20 goals for us this year, and it’s dirty goals. It’s those tip-ins in front of the net, it’s rebound goals...he’s going to have to start paying the price in front of the net.”

While Virtanen is on pace for more than the “15 or 20 goals” that Benning desires, he’s still not scoring the “dirty goals.” Instead, Virtanen is scoring goals the way he always has: off the rush, using his speed and heavy shot.

His first goal of the season against the Calgary Flames was pure speed after coming out of the penalty box. Brandon Sutter hoisted the puck into the offensive zone and Virtanen burned past Mark Giordano to be first to the puck and tuck it between Mike Smith’s legs. His fifth goal was also scored on a breakaway, where his speed held off two Chicago defenders. Another goal scored into an empty net was also made possible because of his speed.

Two of Virtanen's other goals were snipes from long range off the rush, beating the goaltender cleanly with the speed and accuracy of the shot.

He joined Pettersson's line partway through Thursday's game against the Bruins and he scored the Canucks' eighth goal. Again, it was off the rush. He didn't get all of it, but it was still a shot from the high slot, not a greasy, power-forward type of goal.

It seems like Virtanen is finding some success this season without playing the type of power forward game that Benning, along with many Canucks fans, hope to see. After all, that was what the Canucks saw in him when he was drafted: a big, strong, goal-scoring power forward. Benning extolled his “meanness and ruggedness” when Virtanen was drafted, but even in Junior he did the bulk of his scoring from the outside or off the rush.

Travis Green seems to have recognized this. He has Virtanen on the second power play unit, but not as the net-front presence, like you would normally expect from a power forward expected to score “dirty goals” off tip-ins and rebounds. Instead, Virtanen is generally playing on the right half-boards, where he can use his shot from the right faceoff circle.

At even-strength, Virtanen has mainly played on defensive-oriented lines, with Brandon Sutter his most frequent linemate. That means less time spent in the offensive zone, where power forwards frequently do damage off the cycle, but it also means more opportunities to create offence off counter-attack rushes with his speed and shot. He has also been able to use his speed to close down on opponents quickly, and has a team-leading 16 takeaways, tied for 13th in the NHL.

It seems like Green has embraced the player that Virtanen is today instead of the player the Canucks hoped he would be when they drafted him. Perhaps that player is a lot closer to the likes of David Booth than Milan Lucic, but there’s tremendous value in a free-shooting, speedy, two-way winger.

Certainly, it would be ideal for Virtanen to take the puck to the net with more authority and frequency. It would be great if Virtanen could get some “dirty goals” to go with his breakaways and snipes. Perhaps he will “get it” at some point in the future; until then, putting Virtanen in a position to succeed as the player he is today is the best course of action.

Stick-taps and Glove-drops

A tap of the stick to the Canucks’ NCAA prospects. Quinn Hughes has 7 points in 7 games, while freshman defenceman Jack Rathbone is off to a great start with 6 points in 3 games. Forwards Tyler Madden and William Lockwood each have 5 points.

I’m dropping the gloves with the Arizona Uber driver that recorded and released a video of several Ottawa Senators players badmouthing their team and special teams coach. There’s a presumption of privacy in that situation that was violated.

Big Numbers

1.55 - Elias Pettersson was brielfy leading the NHL in points-per-game earlier this week, but is currently third in the NHL with 1.55 points per game, behind only the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen and Dallas Stars' Alexander Radulov. When you take into account ice time, Pettersson is in first, with a league-leading 4.76 points per hour.

36 - Nikolay Goldobin has just one goal so far this season, but he actually leads the Canucks in shots on goal at 5-on-5 with 25, and is second on the team in scoring chances at all strengths with 36, behind Bo Horvat’s 39, as measured by analytics site Natural Stat Trick. At some point Goldobin's 3.2% shooting percentage will regress to the mean and the puck will start going in for him again.
 

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