The regular season has not even started yet, and 19-year old Jake Virtanen already has battle scars. But despite the giant bruise around his left eye he acquired from basically scoring a goal with his face on Thursday night against Edmonton, Virtanen seems to be excited and energized – especially since it was announced that him and fellow 19-year old Jared McCann would get an even longer chance to show what they can do in the NHL.
“You don’t just get lucky. There’s no luck,” Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins told Canadian Press. “You get what you deserve … those guys are ready, they’re good players.”
On Monday morning, Linden Vey (along with defenders Frank Corrado and Alex Biega) was placed on waivers, leaving room on the roster for Virtanen and McCann. It was expected that Virtanen would get a chance to play in the regular season, but McCann ended up being a pleasant surprise in the pre-season, outplaying several other Canucks forwards (such as Vey). With McCann being a centre, if Vey was not placed on waivers, there would likely not have been room for McCann (with the other centres being Henrik Sedin, Brandon Sutter, and Bo Horvat). The Canucks’ head staff have stressed that they feel that Virtanen and McCann have really earned their spots on the team through their play in training camp and the pre-season.
“Our goal two years ago was to be younger and faster and integrate young players into an environment which is conducive to winning. This is an exciting thing,” Canucks President Trevor Linden said to reporters on Monday.
Virtanen, a BC born player who was drafted sixth overall by the Canucks in the 2014 draft, is a strong and physical goal-scoring winger who has played the last four seasons with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen.
While Virtanen was fairly silent for his first pre-season game on September 22nd against San Jose, he definitely made his presence felt in the games following. He showed that he can score, scoring the Canucks’ only goal (a power play goal) in a 4-1 loss to Calgary on September 25th and then another power play goal (the one he scored with his face) on October 1st against Edmonton. That game against Edmonton was probably one of his best of the pre-season, and viewers got a taste of his fearlessness and his speedy forechecking abilities. He set-up both of Bo Horvat’s goals that game with some great passes. Virtanen has also showed that he can be physical: on September 28th against Arizona, he led the team in hits with six.
McCann, a centre who was drafted 24th overall by the Canucks in the 2014 draft, was not expected to stand out quite nearly as much as Virtanen, but quickly proved those expectations wrong. After contributing two assists on September 26th against Calgary, McCann scored the Canucks’ only goal in a 1-0 win over Arizona and the Canucks’ only goal in a 2-1 loss to San Jose. He nearly scored again on October 1st, but hit the post. Like Virtanen, McCann plays with lots of speed.
“Speed excites me. I like guys who can skate and push people back and Virtanen and McCann can do that, and it excites me,” Desjardins told The Province. “They’re ready.” Both players finished with four points in six pre-season games.
It will be exciting to see so much youth on the Canucks’ roster for the first few games. This is probably the youngest roster the Canucks have iced at the beginning of the season for a long time, with Virtanen and McCann joining 20-year old Bo Horvat and 23-year old Sven Baertschi up front and 22-year old defensivemen Ben Hutton. Whether or not Virtanen and McCann will last more than nine games (and burn up their entry-level contract) has yet to be seen, but their first nine NHL games will be games to watch.
“They played well enough to be here and that’s all we can say right now. You evaluate your team on a day-to-day basis, game-to-game, and you try to look at the big picture while you do that,” said Linden. “We’ll continue to evaluate.”
For now, the Canucks’ plethora of rookies and young players is like a breath of fresh air. Keep your eye out for these players, especially Virtanen and McCann, as the season begins. The Canucks begin their season Wednesday night in Calgary.