What to do with Jake Virtanen is the Canucks’ topic of the week.
In case you missed it, Virtanen caused a bit of a feces storm on Tuesday speaking with the media about his slow start to the season.
“The lines have been changed pretty much every day so you’re not really sure who you’re playing with. If you’re going to be in the lineup you like to be able to get chemistry with your teammates and your linemates especially,” he said.
“Being with [Bo Horvat] and [Sven Baertschi], we do have chemistry, so when we’re switching around a lot, it’s kind of hard to get that line going all the time.”
While many fans and media members believe Virtanen shouldn’t be speaking to the media about his issues with coaching decisions, they should realize Virtanen was responding to comments Willie Desjardins made earlier, where he said Virtanen’s not where he needs to be yet.
Desjardins spoke with TSN 1040 Thursday morning, and he was asked to expand on his thoughts on Virtanen.
“All players want more ice time and Jake’s expressed that he wants more. That’s not an unusual comment,” he said.
Desjardins then compared Virtanen’s situation to that of Nikita Tryamkin.
“If you look at a guy like Tryamkin, he came in and we felt his conditioning wasn’t where it needed it to be and since the start of the year his body fat’s gone down three percent.”
If hearing this made you wonder if fitness is Virtanen’s issue, you’re not alone.
Before you jump to conclusions, Desjardins did add that every player has their own challenges.
The coach continued: “I think Jake has the talent to be a top-9 for sure, even a top-6. He could be a power forward. He’s got power, he can shoot the puck, he goes to the net.
“He’s got lots to his game that makes him a good player. Obviously if he was doing all those things right now, I’d be playing him more and he’d be playing up the lineup with regular players.”
While you’d like to take Desjardins at his word on this last comment, you don’t have to think back far to remember when Bo Horvat wasn’t getting the ice time he had earned. During the 2015 playoff series against the Flames, Horvat was clearly Vancouver’s most dynamic and threatening forward after the Sedins, yet he was stuck playing on the fourth line.
And just a week ago Horvat started the season on Vancouver’s fourth line with Derek Dorsett and Alex Burrows.
That said, Desjardins’ most damning comment on Virtanen’s current game was this one:
“We started last season at the end of the year we talked with him and said, ‘OK, this is where we need you to be.’ You know, he wasn’t quite where we needed him when camp started, we talked again.”
While Virtanen hasn’t put up a point yet this season, his even-strength shot attempt differential (corsi) of 47 percent is ranked eighth amongst Canucks forwards, above the likes of Brandon Sutter, Sven Baertschi, and Bo Horvat.
That stat should be read with the knowledge that Virtanen has been on the ice for the highest percentage of offensive zone faceoffs of all forwards other than the Sedins and Loui Eriksson.
With all this in mind, you have to wonder if Vancouver is the best place for Virtanen to be playing in order to develop into that top-six power forward everyone hopes he’ll become. At Thursday morning’s practice, Virtanen was skating on the fourth line once again with Brendan Gaunce and Jayson Megna.
Desjardins was asked if he thinks Virtanen would be better off playing in Utica with Vancouver’s AHL team.
“I don’t want Jake to be a fourth-line player,” he replied.
“I want Jake to play up the lineup and I don’t want him to get habits of a fourth line guy, and I don’t want him to ever think he’s a fourth line guy… I think it depends on Jake and what he’s doing and where he’s at, and if he’s not pushing himself here, then maybe he does have to get ice time someplace else.”
Adding to the comment above where Desjardins said Tryamkin’s got his body fat down three percent since the start of the season, the coach said Tryamkin will likely get a chance to play if either Erik Gudbranson or Luca Sbisa get injured.
Desjardins said Sbisa or Gudbranson would be the guys he’d go in for because like them, he’s a “bigger, heavier guy who can play against big guys.”