Virtanen’s development stagnated to the point he played himself out of coach Travis Green’s lineup five times last season, and the 24-year-old from Abbotsford finished the pandemic campaign with just five goals and no assists – offensive numbers lower than what he posted as an overmatched National Hockey League teenager-rookie in 2015-16.
By the time general manager Jim Benning made the decision to place Virtanen on unconditional waivers for the purpose of a buyout – a transaction announced Sunday morning without comment on the team’s Twitter account – the Canucks simply needed the winger’s cap space.
The buyout will be more painless than Virtanen’s erratic development in six years with his hometown team.
Since Virtanen is under 26, the NHL’s complicated buyout formula leaves the Canucks owing a salary-cap charge of just $50,000 next season and an additional $500,000 liability in 2022-23. This creates a whopping savings next year of $2.5 million, nearly the entire $2.55-million cap hit that keeping Virtanen would have incurred.
It was an easy decision for the Canucks to buy out Virtanen, but one they delayed for a week in the faint hope that teams that had previously expressed an interest in the former sixth-overall pick might still be willing to accept him in trade.
Virtanen’s serious legal problems made that impossible.
The player was placed on indefinite leave by the Canucks on May 1 when reports surfaced of an alleged sexual assault in 2017. Virtanen is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation as well as a civil suit filed by a woman in B.C. Supreme Court in Kelowna in May.
More than Virtanen’s NHL future is uncertain.
The Canucks’ decision to terminate his contract is draped in symbolism.
The former Calgary Hitmen scoring star was the first draft pick by Benning after he replaced Mike Gillis as Vancouver’s GM in 2014. And although scouting and draft preparation was carried out by Gillis’ staff, Virtanen will always be connected with Benning’s arrival on the West Coast.
Virtanen also suffered a kind of guilt-by-association with Tyler Toffoli after the first-line winger was allowed by the Canucks to leave in free agency last October, signing a bargain four-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens at an average salary of $4.25 million.
Ten days later, Benning re-signed Virtanen to a two-year deal worth $2.55 million. It’s simplistic reasoning, sure, but the Canucks should have found money to pay Toffoli but instead gave a chunk of it to Virtanen.
Toffoli was seventh in the NHL with 28 goals this season, then helped the Canadiens make it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993. Fair or not, Virtanen was a reminder of the far better player who got away.
Virtanen’s downfall as a Canuck was not only that he failed to develop into a top-six power forward who could score 20 or 30 goals a year, but that he failed to play consistently with the physical presence he displayed on occasion, and didn’t earn the trust of Green by improving the defensive side of his game.
There was no role left for him to play.
Virtanen was an obvious buyout candidate even before allegations against him surfaced during a Canucks trip to Toronto.
When Benning swung for the fences in Friday’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes, transforming $12 million of bad contracts into top-pairing defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and top-six winger Conor Garland, the Canucks accepted a $43.56-million obligation to Ekman-Larsson over the next six years.
They simply couldn’t afford to carry Virtanen any longer.
Drafted in 2014 just ahead of William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kevin Fiala, and 19 spots before David Pastrnak, Virtanen still has the physical tools to make an impact. He was the fastest skater on the Canucks, one of the most powerful at 220 pounds, and has a heavy shot that produced 45 goals in 71 games in junior in his draft year.
Virtanen loved being selected by his boyhood team and mostly loved playing for the Canucks. He meant well as a player, tried to improve his game. He endured without complaint the withering scrutiny of the market. But Virtanen never came close to fulfilling expectations and becoming the player he is capable of being. Now, he’ll need to try somewhere else. If someone gives him the chance.
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