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Ed Willes: It's showtime for Virtanen, who continues to tantalize and infuriate

Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks, pushed into Stars' netminder Ben Bishop during NHL action last month in Dallas, wants to prove he belongs in the NHL and in his home province.
Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks, pushed into Stars' netminder Ben Bishop during NHL action last month in Dallas, wants to prove he belongs in the NHL and in his home province.

Before we get to today’s subject, here’s a Vancouver Canucks pop quiz:

In terms of years of service with the club, list the Canucks skaters who suited up Thursday night against Carolina from top to bottom.

The senior-most man, defenceman Chris Tanev, would be easy for most fans to identify. The second, team captain Bo Horvat, might surprise some, but Horvat is in his sixth season with the Canucks and has already played 409 NHL games.

Then there’s the third guy. You don’t think of Jake Virtanen as a grizzled veteran but, even though he’s 23, the kid from Abbotsford is in his fifth season with the Canucks.

Now here’s the next question: Will he make it to six?

“Obviously, I’d love to play here my whole career,” Virtanen says. “I’d feel fortunate to be able to do that.”


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And the Canucks would love to have him, but that might depend on how the final 50 games of this season play out.

“We’ve been patient to this point, but when we talked to him this summer we said, ‘You’re not a young player anymore,’” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “‘You have to take the next step.’

“He has a unique skill set with his size and his speed. It’s hard to find. That’s why we’ve been patient with him. But we’ll see how this season progresses. We’ll see if he’s going to be a long-term fit for us.”

Virtanen, Benning’s first draft pick as the Canucks’ GM, appears to have taken another step in this, a pivotal moment in his eventful career. But it hasn’t been the giant leap forward the faithful might have expected from the sixth overall pick of the 2014 draft.

With his contract set to expire at the conclusion of this season, Virtanen has registered seven goals and 15 points in 32 games, which is more points than players such as Joe Pavelski, Jake DeBrusk and Tyler Johnson and extrapolates to 19 goals and 40 points over 82 games.

Those numbers would represent career highs for Virtanen, who improved his totals in each of the last two seasons. A 20-goal, 40-point third-liner is a valuable piece in today’s NHL. Benning and the organization would also commit to the burly winger if they’re convinced that’s who Virtanen is; but the Canucks are also developing options among their forward group, which is why the next 3½ months is vital to his future.

“I mean, I’ve been here for a while now and I like to think of myself as (an everyday NHLer),” Virtanen says. “For sure. I think I’ve taken steps in the right direction.”

But how many and how far have they taken him?

“The question with Jake is consistency,” says Benning.

The last four games, in fact, have revealed much about what tantalizes and infuriates about Virtanen. In the Canucks’ wins over Ottawa and Buffalo he picked up three assists on a newly formed line with Antoine Roussel and Adam Gaudette as the Canucks looked like they’d finally found a legitimate third unit. That lasted until Tuesday against Toronto, when that line virtually disappeared and had its ice time clawed back in the third period.

As for Thursday’s win over the Hurricanes, we saw both good Jake and bad Jake. While he didn’t hit the scoresheet, he registered three shots on net and five attempts and almost scored the game-winner when he turned a loose puck into a partial breakaway that Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek barely foiled.

Along the way, he worked himself into the top six and the second power-play unit. But he also took a tripping penalty in the third period and an ill-advised pass resulted in an odd-man rush for the visitors.

Canucks head coach Travis Green has witnessed the full Virtanen spectrum going back to the lost year in Utica when Green was the head coach. Virtanen, at that point, looked like he could be a complete bust, but he’s since carved out a regular spot on Green’s team.

“There’s definitely been a lot of progression in his game and how he needs to play to be effective,” Green says. “I’d say (the time he invests in Virtanen) is less now than it was last year and last year was less than the year before.”

So maybe this comes down to a question of expectations. Virtanen, it seems, will never score at a level commensurate with his draft position. But if he can be that 20-20 guy, if he can play up and down the lineup; in short, if he can be a consistent contributor, he’ll have a home with the Canucks.

That’s what he wants and what the organization wants for him. But there’s only one person who can make that happen.

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LISTEN: In this week’s White Towel podcast, beat writer Ben Kuzma and columnist Ed Willes join Paul Chapman to discuss the Canucks “microcore” and the challenges they face going into the rest of the season. The group also looks at the job Jim Benning has done, the increased social media presence of owner Francesco Aquilini and whether that places any extra burden on Benning, as well as the dilemma of what to do with the goaltending situation looking ahead to the off-season. The podcast finishes off with a look back at the 1982 Canucks team that caught fire and rode it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

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