Just play the kids, damn it.
That’s something Canucks fans have bemoaned for years in Vancouver. Sometimes for good reason.
Remember Bo Horvat starting last season on the fourth line? Remember how long it took before he was played like the team’s leading point getter?
Then again this season, Brock Boeser was a healthy scratch for the first two games. That’s the same guy with the best shot on the team, who had a terrific preseason. It’s the same guy leading the team in scoring right now.
Another player who had a terrific preseason was Jake Virtanen. On Thursday against the Vegas Golden Knights, he was a healthy scratch.
Virtanen has been a healthy scratch for three straight games, coming out of the lineup with the return of Loui Eriksson. And while Eriksson has been quite good and should be in the lineup, the team’s reluctance to play Virtanen goes beyond Loui versus Jake.
There has been a seeming lack of trust to put Virtanen in any sort of role of prominence so far.
Seeing just 9:43 of ice time per game, no Canucks regular has averaged less. He’s the only forward on the team to not be trusted to play special teams – averaging just 10 seconds per game on the power play and just nine seconds on the penalty kill.
So what gives?
At the end of last season, Canucks president Trevor Linden said the word that many people were dying to hear. He said the word “rebuild.”
And while Travis Green does deserve credit for the team’s play this year – and he has played youngsters Ben Hutton, Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, and Boeser a ton – he doesn’t get a pass on Virtanen. Nor should the organization.
Virtanen is at a critical stage in his development as a player.
Still just 21 years old, he’s coming off a disappointing year. By all accounts he learned some lessons through some tough love from Green in Utica, which appeared to be a positive sign heading into this season.
He arrived in camp in shape, and he looked fast and physical in preseason. Furthermore, he put up six points (4-2-6) in six exhibition games.
The regular season is a different animal of course, but Virtanen has been good this year too.
His Corsi-For percentage is third-best among Canucks forwards, trailing only Henrik and Daniel Sedin. And that’s no mirage, either.
Virtanen’s speed has helped on the back-check. He’s been smart with the puck.
He hasn’t been perfect, surely, but this is not a player making boneheaded plays that get him sat out of the lineup.
In terms of points per 60 minutes, Virtanen ranks fourth on the team – behind Boeser, Horvat, and Baertschi.
“It’s a fine line between developing a young player and doing what’s best for the team,” Green told reporters after the morning skate on Thursday.
Green must be seeing something that I’m not, because Virtanen has not only passed the stats test, he’s passed the eye test too.
Playing Virtanen kills two birds with one stone. He’s an important part of the future for a rebuilding team and he helps the team when he’s in the lineup.
Virtanen has the speed to be a penalty killer. He has the shot and the size to fill a couple of roles on the power play. He’s responsible enough to play a regular shift at five-on-five.
Does he need tough love at times? Perhaps. Green has said that he wants him to be more physical, so the occasional benching to remind him of that makes sense. But playing him under 12 minutes, as they’ve done for all but one game this season, is taking it a little bit far.
This isn’t a case of lobbying for a player to be gifted ice time at the NHL level. If he wasn’t playing well, I’d be lobbying for him to be sent to Utica, as I’ve done in the past. But the fact is that Virtanen has earned more ice time – certainly more than a few players ahead of him in the lineup.
Brendan Gaunce is a responsible player, but he gives the team very little offensively. Markus Granlund has three points in 18 games. Sam Gagner has been a disappointment with just six points.
Virtanen needs a role on this team – checking line, energy player, scorer – pick one. But whatever you do, play him.