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On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense.
Jake Virtanen had a good year, setting career highs in goals (18), assists (18), and points (36) before the regular season was cut short in March. He was on his way to eclipsing the 20-goal plateau, was a fan favourite among beer-shotgunning fans, and was among just six Canucks to appear in all 69 games.
But on Wednesday, the Abbotsford native found himself on the outside looking in for the Canucks’ lone exhibition game against the Winnipeg Jets.
In a usual preseason, that wouldn’t mean much. But with Game 1 looming on Sunday, you better believe this meant something.
In a first intermission interview with Sportsnet, GM Jim Benning downplayed the decision to make the former sixth overall draft pick a healthy scratch. But after the game, Travis Green wasn’t so kind.
“I just went with the lineup that I thought gave us the best chance to win. Plain and simple,” said Green when asked why he didn’t dress the team’s fifth-leading goal-scorer.
That’s a damning statement, particularly when you consider that teams were allowed to ice two extra skaters than usual for the exhibition game and the extra forward spot went to rookie Zack MacEwen.
But there are many reasons not to dress Virtanen, despite how weird the optics look.
Aside from Josh Leivo, who is still out with a fractured knee cap, the Canucks are fully healthy. That includes Micheal Ferland, who missed most of the season with concussion-related issues, and Tyler Toffoli, who was acquired in a trade in February.
In short, Green has more choices now.
He isn’t touching his top two lines, which are loaded more than they have been in years. The Canucks love the energy Antoine Roussel and Ferland bring on the third line with Adam Gaudette. Both Roussel and Ferland outplayed Virtanen during training camp, and their line produced the Canucks’ only goal against Winnipeg.
That leaves the fourth line.
Despite his spotty defensive play, Virtanen would be an upgrade over Tyler Motte or Brandon Sutter on the fourth line, centred by Jay Beagle. The problem is, that trio represents three of Green’s four penalty-killing forwards (Tanner Pearson is the other).
Sutter had a rough game against the Jets. He looked slow and took a bad penalty. There’s a case to be made that the 31-year-old should be pulled from the lineup.
But if Sutter is removed, that means another forward that can take faceoffs needs to take his place on the penalty kill. JT Miller is the likely candidate for that spot, though he averaged just 0:36 of penalty killing time this season. The issue there is that Miller already plays big minutes on the first line and top power unit. If he can avoid it, Green would prefer resting Miller, his leading scorer, when it comes to killing penalties.
Removing Motte from the lineup would be easier, given someone like Antoine Roussel could step into a penalty-killing role, though then all three fourth-liners would be right shots, which isn’t ideal. Roussel hardly killed penalties this season, but he averaged 0:52 of PK time per game in 2018-19.
Given that Minnesota has a pretty good power play, tied for 10th-best in the league with a 21.3%, this may not be the time for experimentation just to get Virtanen into the lineup.
Still, Green is making himself vulnerable to criticism. Virtanen brings speed and a good shot to the table. He was also very effective on the team’s second power play unit, compiling nine power play points. The easy decision would have been to sit Ferland for Game 1 and insert him following a loss.
But in a five-game series, there’s not much time to recover. Every coach’s job is on the line to some degree in the postseason, so Green is going to do what most coaches would do in this situation.
He’s going to dress the players that he thinks gives him the best chance to win.