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Canucks give polarizing Virtanen another chance to prove himself

VANCOUVER – It was either a wonderful coincidence or wry brilliance that for the video press conference announcing his new two-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks, Jake Virtanen wore a fashion hoodie with the word “Loveless” across the chest.

Whether a statement or an accusation, it was a power move.

The 24-year-old winger isn’t loveless, of course.

He’s from Abbotsford, which makes the amiable Virtanen a hometown kid on the Canucks. Lots of fans love him. But some do not, and this is probably the way it’s going to stay for a while.

Few current players split the fan base as much as Virtanen – not because he isn’t good, but because he hasn’t been good enough so far for a player who was drafted sixth-overall by Jim Benning not long after the general manager took over the Canucks in 2014.

Virtanen scored 18 goals and 27 even-strength points last season with third-line ice time of 13:05 per game. That is impressive. In his fifth season, Virtanen probably would have eclipsed his stated goal of scoring 20 had the regular campaign not been shortened to 69 games. It has taken a lot of baby steps to get this far.

But the coronavirus shutdown gave Virtanen the chance to disappoint the team with his training-camp conditioning twice in one season. And when the Canucks began their surprising playoff run in Edmonton, the 18-goal scorer was healthy-scratched by coach Travis Green.

His timeout lasted only one game, but in the 16 playoff games he played, Virtanen managed just two goals and one assist and only sporadically delivered the physical presence he is capable of for someone who weighs 220 pounds and is arguably the most powerful skater on the team.

If playoff elimination were high school graduation, Virtanen would have been voted the non-unrestricted free agent least likely to return to the Canucks. He looked like he needed a change and the team badly needed some salary-cap relief.

And then there he was Thursday, under contract for two more years at an average of $2.55 million US.

“With him, it’s that consistency you’re looking for shift in and shift out,” Benning explained to Sportsnet. “I think Jake’s come a long way these last couple of years. We’ve seen glimpses of what he can be.

“It can be frustrating. But I’ve just seen too many examples where if you’re not patient with those guys and move them on, he ends up being that power forward that scores 25 goals for somebody else. We’ve put a lot of time in his development and we’re hoping he can continue to mature and get better and be that player for us.”

The two-year contract came as Virtanen and the team were scheduled to go to arbitration next week. His average salary is probably less than what an arbitrator would have awarded him on a one-year deal, but includes a back-loaded salary of $3.4 million in 2021-22.

Virtanen has been auditioned several times as a top-six winger, but has never seized that role under Green. But he became more important to the Canucks when Tyler Toffoli, acquired in a February trade from Los Angeles, left Vancouver as an unrestricted free agent this month.

Virtanen will get another chance to play in the top six, even if it puts Benning under even more pressure to shed payroll elsewhere to make it happen. Thursday’s contract puts the Canucks about $1.5 million over the limit, and the team still hopes to re-sign injured winger Josh Leivo and fill out the bottom of its defence with minor-league graduates.

“I feel like I can kind of go up and down the lineup,” Virtanen said. “But if that top-six right side is open, it’s definitely a goal of mine to get there, but stay there. I want to make sure I can contribute, and I think I can do that for sure. I want to show that to teammates and management and myself.

“I’m making sure that I’m ready to go. I think Travis will see that. I want to turn some heads coming into camp and making sure I’m feeling good about myself and my confidence is high. Travis knows what kind of player I am.”

And Benning knows what kind of player he’d like Virtanen to become.

“When we watched Alex Tuch play against us for Vegas (in the playoffs), he used his size and speed and had a really good series against us,” Benning said of the Knights’ power forward. “We think that’s what Jake can get to. We’ve been patient with him. It’s been incremental steps for him to get there. But he’s a guy that can take another step.”

It was only six weeks ago when Benning said he had “expected more” from Virtanen in the playoffs.

“When the GM says that about you, you kind of go back home and you think about it a lot,” Virtanen, who is spending the off-season training with teammate Tyler Myers in Kelowna, said Thursday. “For me, that was my first playoff experience. . . and obviously not normal playoffs circumstances being in the bubble and everything. At least I have that experience now.”

And as for what others say about him?

“The media and Twitter stuff, I don’t really want to comment,” Virtanen told Sportsnet 650 radio host Scott Rintoul. “Everyone always wants to say something. Obviously, I have Twitter and Instagram and a lot of people send me stuff. But you know, it doesn’t really bother me. It used to bother me when I was younger. People have their own opinions and that’s just how it is. That’s what Twitter is.

“For me, it’s just focussing on myself and my team and how we’re going to make that next round of the playoffs, how we’re going to win the Cup, how we’re going to come into camp ready to go. People can think what they want.”


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