It’s no secret that Canucks right winger Jake Virtanen likes to play on the edge. Whether it’s at the junior level with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen or at the game’s highest level in Vancouver, the six-foot-one sophomore from New Westminster has always walked the line when it comes to the physical side of hockey.
But on Sunday night in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Virtanen came incredibly close to crossing it. Early in the third period Virtanen collided with Hurricanes forward Joakim Nordstrom, and as the pair went sliding towards the glass he appeared to throw Nordstrom’s head into the boards.
Virtanen wasn’t given a penalty on the play and, according to NBC, won’t be hearing from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for the incident either. It’s been a rough start to the season for Virtanen; not only did he leave the Canucks first preseason game with a shoulder injury but was also on the receiving end of a late high hit from Calgary Flames forward Lance Bouma in the season opener.
But this isn’t the first time he’s made headlines for a borderline play. Last season in a March 29 game against the San Jose Sharks, Virtanen delivered a crushing late check to the head of Roman Polak and handed a two game suspension the following day. His fiery approach also became front page news after the 2016 World Junior semifinals, when he infamously landed Team Canada two penalties on the same shift against Finland.
Canucks management has shown great faith in their 2014 sixth overall pick, thanks in large part in his strong work ethic and passionate play. But sometimes that passion has boiled over and led to reckless mistakes, such as the Nordstrom incident or the Polak hit. But these mistakes could end up being a great teaching moment for the coaching staff with not only Virtanen, but the rest of the developing Canucks core.
These sorts of plays aren’t something a young prospect is stuck with if he’s coached correctly. It’ll be up to Desjardins to take the risky parts of Virtanen’s play and turn it into a disciplined, hard-hitting, playmaking machine. The talent is all there, and it’s just a matter of putting it together.
This doesn’t just go for Virtanen either. Keeping players like Bo Horvat, Nikita Tryamkin and Brendan Gaunce in check will be crucial to their long term success in Vancouver. Having role model players like the Sedins will definitely help, but the onus is all on the coaches to drill smart play into their heads. All of these young Canucks have the skill set that can make this team a champion, and playing the game responsibly could be the skill that sets them apart from the rest.
As far as Virtanen’s career is concerned, the Canucks will never want him to stop playing on the edge entirely because it’s a large piece of his playing arsenal. But if Vancouver can simply train him into staying on the right side of that line, not only could Jake Virtanen finish his career as one of the league’s premiere two-way forwards; he could also become one of the most strong and respected leaders in the game.