If you think that being the highest Vancouver Canucks draft pick since Daniel and Henrik Sedin were taken second and third, respectively, in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft would get to Jake Virtanen’s head – fear not.
A brief chat with the Canucks’ first pick, sixth overall in the 2014 draft, reveals a teenager whose noggin is firmly planted on his shoulders.
The 17-year-old Abbotsford resident has a tantalizing blend of size and skill.
Last season, Virtanen scored a teamleading 45 goals to go along with 71 points in 71 games with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen. He also racked up 100 penalty minutes.
Virtanen’s 45 markers were fourth most in the WHL.
These days, the Abbotsford resident is once again spending his summer working out with Tyler Jackson and Mike Thompson of Langley-based TnT Hockey Performance Training.
We caught up with Virtanen at Langley’s Revolution Gym on July 16.
The right winger is focusing on full-time NHL employment sometime in the near future, but for now, his goal is strengthening his left shoulder, which was operated on in late May.
It’s been roughly nine weeks since the operation, so there’s a very delicate balance between strengthening Virtanen’s surgically repaired shoulder, and not pushing it to the point of injuring it again.
That’s where TnT comes into play. “Right now, we’re working on recovering the shoulder,” Jackson said. “He’s been going through physio and a lot of recovery, so we’re just getting into the post-rehab stuff right now.”
Virtanen is targeting mid-October for his return to the ice.
“Right now, I’m just trying to focus on just rehabbing it [the shoulder] and making it so it’s stable throughout the whole shoulder,” he said.
With his shoulder on the mend, Virtanen will get back to the “fun” part of dryland training – cardio.
“Getting the lungs going a little bit,” Jackson said. “He wasn’t really allowed to do much during the recovery process. Now, it’s just kind of getting back at ‘er.”
It won’t take long for Virtanen to get back into the swing of things, in Jackson’s opinion. Tall, lean, and broad shouldered, Virtanen has almost grown into his six-footone-inch frame. But arguably his biggest attributes are core strength and the power he has in his legs.
“He’s real explosive,” Jackson said, “lower body especially. It shows in his skating stride, too. He’s really strong in the gym, too, when it comes to lower body strength and power. That’s what you see in his skating stride. That’s probably his best attribute. Plus, he works pretty hard, too.”
There was sticker shock, initially, for Virtanen in 2011/12 when he made the jump from the BC Major Midget League to the major junior Hitmen for a nine-game stint. But it didn’t take long for him to adjust to playing against opponents as many as three years older than him.
“It was definitely a big change with guys being stronger,” he said, “but I felt like I made that jump pretty easily. It wasn’t as tough as I thought it’d be. I know guys who are older than me said they had a tough time transferring over because the guys are a lot bigger and stronger.”
Virtanen knows Langley well, having grown up in the community before moving to Abbotsford with his family when he was 12.
These days, he makes the trek east along Highway 1 to his old hometown to work out with TnT, of which he’s in some pretty elite company. Among the NHL’ers past
and present who have worked with veteran hockey trainer Thompson in the past are Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Norris Trophy winning defenceman Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks.
For his part, Virtanen has trained with TnT for the past two years.
“I started with them, going into my 16-year-old year,” he recalled.
His rigorous off-season regimen has made the jump to new levels of the game all the more seamless, Virtanen said.
“It was actually pretty easy for me because I was already in that shape, and in that size, and in that mode of taking guys on who are bigger, stronger, and older,” Virtanen said.
Looking ahead to the fall, Virtanen’s short-term future is both bright and just a little bit cloudy at the same time.
That’s because he has two options: the Hitmen or the Canucks. He’s too young to play for the Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Utica Comets.
“It depends on what the Canucks want,” Virtanen said. “It’s up to them, really. I’d like to obviously make the jump into the NHL right away, but I know that another year of junior wouldn’t hurt me because of the shoulder and stuff, but if the Canucks want me to stay up, I’ll do that. If they want me to go back, it’s just kind of their choice, right?” Jackson said Virtanen is already physically prepared to make what will be a quantum leap to pro hockey.
“If not this year, he’ll make the jump real quick,” Jackson predicted. “The one thing with Jake is, there’s not a lot of guys who are 17 years old and have his body size and strength. He’ll be able to make that jump a lot sooner than, I think, a lot of guys who are in the same draft year as him.”
Virtanen used to go to Canucks games with his dad. Sometime down the road, he might just be on the ice surface at Rogers Arena, with his parents and friends looking down at him. The pressure of playing for his hometown team doesn’t phase him.
“I think I play pretty well under pressure,” Virtanen said. “I think I play my best when I’m playing for something, and obviously if my friends come out [to Canucks games] I think I’ll love that and I’ll always want to play well for them, and especially my family, they’ll always come out and watch.”
Virtanen is the first B.C. born player to be drafted in the first round by the Canucks since Cam Neely was taken in 1983. Neely played a comparable game to Virtanen during his hall of fame career with the Canucks and most notably, the Bruins.
Virtanen has work to do to first make the NHL, and forge a memorable career once he’s there, but he’s more than willing to put in the time and the effort.
“I think it’s every kid’s dream to make the NHL, and so far, right now, my dream’s come true and I’m just trying to get there as quick as possible,” he said. “That’s the goal.”