It’s a new year for Jake Virtanen.
Last season, he arrived to Canucks training camp out of shape. Injuries to other players helped him earn a spot in the opening night lineup, but barely.
He saw just 8:24 of ice time in the team’s first game of the season and played 11:52 in the second game, before being a healthy scratch for the next two.
It wasn’t the best way to handle a former sixth overall draft pick.
After a trip to Utica and back to grab his stuff, Virtanen spent the rest of the season with the Comets.
So yes, the 2016-17 season didn’t go as planned.
Coming into a new season, the 21-year-old Abbotsford native appears to have refocused.
He’s in shape this year, arriving to camp 13 pounds lighter than last year.
"Some guys on our team are skinny. I can just walk by a hot dog stand and gain five pounds" Jake Virtanen 216lbs at camp (229 last year)
— Dan Murphy (@sportsnetmurph) September 13, 2017
Through two preseason games, he’s looked pretty good. He had a goal and a team-high five hits in Los Angeles. He added an assist the next night against Vegas.
Virtanen is back to being a physical force, and certainly could win a spot on the team as a fourth liner. He’s looked better than Nikolay Goldobin so far, and he fits the traditional prototype for a depth role better than Reid Boucher or Anton Rodin.
But this season, the best place for Virtanen – at least to start – is Utica.
The Canucks, as a rebuilding team, need to be thinking about player development. Despite a down year, Virtanen isn’t a player they should give up on. He was drafted to be an offensive contributor, not a bottom-six checker.
Given the number of veteran players on the roster, the odds of Virtanen playing on special teams this season is low. His ice time in general isn’t likely to be very high, either.
Virtanen struggled offensively in Utica last year, putting up a very pedestrian 19 points (9-10-19) in 65 games, good for 12th in team scoring. It’s been a while since he’s felt good about his game offensively, too.
In 142 regular season and playoff games with the Canucks and Comets since leaving junior, Virtanen has 16 goals.
The burgeoning power forward needs to play, and play in all situations. He needs to develop.
Can he do that with the spotlight on him in Vancouver, and a short leash as a depth player getting few opportunities to prove himself? Maybe.
Barring injuries or one heck of a preseason, the best place for Virtanen is Utica. Whether he’s one of the best 23 players on the Canucks roster or not, he belongs in the AHL at this stage of his career, and that’s ok.
Give him time to play, succeed, and then insert him into the lineup.
Virtanen and the Canucks are in Calgary tonight for their third game of the preseason. It’ll be another youth-filled lineup for Vancouver, as most of the veterans are in China preparing for tomorrow’s game in Shanghai.
The Flames are also expected to ice a youthful lineup, after they lost both split-squad games against the Oilers on Monday.