US actor Milton Berle once said, “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” In other words, opportunity will arise – if you keep working for it.
It is a great motivational quote, and a very truthful one at that. It also appears to be the Vancouver Canucks’ approach to handling their prospects. No matter who you are or how you got to where you are, you need to prove that you deserve to be in the lineup. It’s that simple.
For 2014 sixth-overall pick Jake Virtanen, this meant 65 NHL games on the fourth line with role players like Adam Cracknell, Brandon Prust and Derek Dorsett (please don’t hit me with angry “he’s our top scorer” comments), very little ice time, days in the press box, and a year in the minors.
But does this approach really make sense?
Fast forward to the 2017-18 season. Virtanen, now 21 years old, came off a 19-point AHL campaign, but secured an NHL spot thanks to a strong training camp performance. At 6-foot-1 and 207 pounds, he has an impressive frame and looks poised to make an impact with the Canucks.
Yet, he recorded just seven minutes and 34 seconds of ice time in the season opener, again on the fourth line. His ice time went up in game two, then back down to 7:06, and he was a healthy scratch in game four against the Calgary Flames.
Now here’s the deal: if you want your prospects – or any players for that matter – to succeed, you have to give them a chance.
Virtanen is frequently compared to NHL stars William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nikolaj Ehlers of the Winnipeg Jets – two talented offensive players the Canucks passed up on in 2014 to select Virtanen. And at this point, we can safely assume Virtanen will never make it to their level. But where would Nylander or Ehlers be, had they started their NHL careers the way Virtanen did?
Would a player like Nylander be able to take his five to 10 minutes per night on a fourth line with Cracknell and Prust as a rookie and show the coach he deserves to be higher in the lineup? It’s doubtful.
So back to Virtanen in 2017-18. The Abbotsford winger made his way back into the lineup in game five against the Ottawa Senators, logging just over eight minutes. The next game, he got more than nine. Then more than 10, and finally 14 minutes and 24 seconds against the Detroit Red Wings – on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
And there it was.
Canucks forward Jake Virtanen buries his own rebound for his first goal of the season. pic.twitter.com/eG1HzCce2D
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 23, 2017
Virtanen finished the night with eight (!) shots on net and his first goal of the season. Coincidence?
It’s the good ol’ chicken or egg question – what was there first? Does a player get more ice time by being successful or does added ice time allow the player to be successful?
While the chicken or egg question requires a complicated scientific answer, the hockey adoption seems so simple: of course it’s the latter.
No matter how talented a player is, there is no way he can succeed in the position Virtanen was put in in his rookie season or early this year. With that, let’s just hope head coach Travis Green finally decided to count on his young players to carry the load in what should be one of many rebuilding years.
Virtanen has worked extremely hard over the past couple of years, and he deserves his chance. His “sigh of relief” after his first goal speaks volumes.
— Janik Beichler (@JanikBeichler) October 24, 2017
If your player builds a door, don’t board it up with plywood.