The Vancouver Canucks are loaded with question marks for next season.
One of them will be about what is best for the development of right winger Jake Virtanen, who will turn 20 years old next month and is coming off his first NHL campaign. He scored seven goals and 13 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old rookie. On occasion, he showed an ability to drive the net and to be a physical forward capable of crushing the opposition.
That big, physical, powerful forward that can also score is something the Canucks need. Virtanen could still evolve into that player. (On a similar note: Evander Kane trade speculation has been rampant in Vancouver in recent weeks.)
Becoming a consistent performer, showing more than just flashes of potential, has been a talking point surrounding Virtanen this summer.
He’ll be eligible to play with the Utica Comets in the AHL next season, and there is competition at the right wing in Vancouver, with numerous veteran players also listed at that position. That means a spot on the roster won’t be guaranteed for Virtanen, taken sixth overall in the 2014 NHL Draft.
“Jake is going to be a big part of this team for years. It was a stepping stone for him and I was out there (Vancouver) for a week and saw him training and he looked good to me,” Canucks’ center Bo Horvat told Ben Kuzma of The Province newspaper.
“He doesn’t have the mindset that he’s on the team. He has to work for it. It’s the consistency part of the game and you can’t take a night off like in junior. You can take some off knowing it’s a for-sure win and an easier night. There are no easy nights in the NHL. On any night, any team can surprise you.”
Last season, the Canucks kept Virtanen and Jared McCann with the big club, despite the option of sending them back to junior and not burning the first years of their respective entry-level contracts.
It was a major step for a team as it transitions to a younger roster, a younger core. It also came with an abundance of growing pains, culminating in Daniel Sedin ripping into his team after a particularly poor effort versus St. Louis in March.
After the season ended, and the Canucks finished 28th in the overall standings, head coach Willie Desjardins threw down the gauntlet, saying the team would focus once again on trying to win, and putting the onus on the youngsters to be good enough to help in that aspect.
When it comes to Virtanen, his conditioning has turned into an emphasis this summer.
“I think Jake has … a very raw and very unique skill set,” Canucks’ president Trevor Linden told TSN 1040. “He’s come a long way. Last year was an important year for him, just having him see what it takes to get to the next level.
“Jake knows he’s going to have to come to training camp this fall and earn a spot.”