Virtanen proving he’s up to the challenge of cracking Canucks roster

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Will Jake Virtanen begin the year in the American Hockey League? Or has the 2014 sixth-overall pick done enough this preseason to crack the Canucks’ opening night roster?

The 21-year-old forward has 65 games worth of NHL experience since he was selected, but with the number of forwards in camp this month, making the team promised to be a battle for Virtanen, who didn’t necessarily post overwhelming numbers down in Utica last season when he was sent down.

With one preseason game remaining on the Canucks’ schedule, Virtanen has so far been up to the challenge. On Thursday, he notched his third goal in exhibition play. The sequence started with Virtanen picking off a Flames pass inside the Vancouver blue line and leading the transition to the attack.

“I’m not going to worry about that,” Virtanen said of the team’s upcoming roster decisions, following Thursday’s game versus the Flames. “I love when I can get in games. Whatever opportunity you can get, you want to make the most of it.”

Canucks general manager Jim Benning has preached patience with Virtanen’s development. He possesses tantalizing qualities like size on the wing, speed for a bigger player, and a good shot.

The key for Vancouver is getting the most out of him as consistently as possible, and Benning believed that his prospect forward took positive steps forward last year under the watchful eye of Travis Green, now the head coach in Vancouver.

The argument for sending Virtanen back to Utica would be to get him plenty of ice time, play him big minutes and in all situations, which would help his development. He wouldn’t see the same role in Vancouver.

But after enduring some difficulties through two seasons in Vancouver and Utica, his play these past few weeks has kickstarted a conversation that he should start the season in the NHL with the Canucks.