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Free This Player: Jake Virtanen finally showing signs of a breakout in Vancouver

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Virtanen is thriving in a small role, so the Canucks should see what else the former first-rounder is capable of.

Vancouver Canucks v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Jake Virtanen was supposed to be a big deal in Vancouver by now. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, the Canucks selected him to help usher in a new era with the Sedin brothers reaching the end of the line. Just two picks later, William Nylander would go to the Maple Leafs.

Now over three years since that day, Nylander is a superstar with Toronto, and Virtanen is just scratching the surface of his potential with Vancouver. The days of Virtanen being included among the game’s top young players are long gone. At this point, the hope is that he can simply become a quality contributor for the Canucks.

There are reasons for that optimism. On Sunday, Virtanen scored his third goal of the season in a shootout loss to the Rangers. He’s only recorded six points in 20 games, but he’s also playing an extremely small role on the fourth line.

Despite that lack of playing time, Virtanen is still grinding away and showing signs that he won’t be a total bust in the NHL. For a team with one eye toward the future, the Canucks could be better served pushing him even more to see just what they have in the former first-rounder.

How we got here

Virtanen entered the 2014 draft as an elite prospect. He was rated seventh by Sportsnet, 11th by SB Nation, and sixth by NHL Central Scouting. Players picked soon after him include Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dylan Larkin, and Nick Ritchie.

The shine has worn off since then, though. Virtanen went back to juniors after being drafted and saw his goal total plummet from 45 to 21. During the 2015-16 season, he made the leap to the NHL as you’d expect from an elite prospect, only to struggle to the tune of just 13 points in 55 games.

The Canucks sent him to the AHL for much of the 2016-17 season, and he was brutal there with 19 points and a minus-11 rating in 65 games. At that point, it seemed reasonable to wonder whether he would be a total flameout at the NHL level. If he could only put up 0.29 points per game as a 20-year-old with the Utica Comets, what’s he going to do facing the Kings and Sharks regularly?

The Canucks understandably didn’t roll out the red carpet for Virtanen in training camp this year after that performance, but he still earned a spot on the roster for opening night. And now more than a quarter into the season, he’s potentially earning more chances.

Why Virtanen deserves a bigger opportunity

The simple answer is that he has the pedigree of a top-10 overall pick and is just 21 years old, so how could you totally write him off now? Different players develop at different rates, even if the vast majority of top NHL players make it at a very young age.

But there are also signs in his recent performance that he’s playing better. While six points in 20 games won’t blow anyone away, his underlying numbers range from solid to spectacular.

To start, Virtanen has done an exceptional job of driving possession. Yes, he’s taking nearly two-thirds of his zone starts in the offensive end, so coach Travis Green is placing him in favorable situations, but his even strength Corsi of 55 percent is 8.6 percent higher than when he’s off the ice, according to Hockey-Reference. Even when accounting for how he’s being used relative to his teammates, that’s really good.

And while he only has three goals, he’s taken 38 shots on goal in 20 games. That’s an average of 11.7 shots on goal per 60 minutes. For some perspective, Auston Matthews has averaged 11 shots on goal per 60 this season. Obviously that’s not a reasonable direct comparison, but it shows how efficient Virtanen has been in putting pucks on net. That’s usually a good indicator of future scoring ability.

Maybe this is merely a flash in the pan buoyed by cushy circumstances, but the Canucks should try to figure that out. If Virtanen can thrive in an easy role playing 10 minutes per game, could he do similar in a slightly more challenging role for 14-15 minutes per game? Could he become a legitimate long-term piece for a team that’s soon going to be building around Brock Boeser? Virtanen may never live up to the billing that comes with being a No. 6 overall pick, but he could still become a key player for the Canucks.