Jake Virtanen’s days were pretty packed after the Vancouver Canucks banished him to the American Hockey League last season.
The sixth overall pick at the 2014 NHL draft would work out with his Utica Comets teammates, hit the ice for practice, then ride a stationary bike before heading home after lunch for a few hours of sleep.
He’d be back at the arena for another gym session or a meeting, or both, with head coach Travis Green as the player and organization looked to improve his fitness and help him rediscover his game.
While still a long way from realizing his potential, Virtanen is making a solid case to be in the lineup when the Canucks open the regular season.
The 21-year-old winger scored his third goal of the exhibition schedule and Anders Nilsson made 30 saves as Vancouver downed the Calgary Flames 3-1 on Thursday night.
“Whatever opportunity you can get, you want to go out there and make the most of it,” said Virtanen. “Don’t go out there and overthink.”
Travis Green has positive words for his team after a big victory over the Flames. pic.twitter.com/Mcr0UeFiBr
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) September 29, 2017
The Abbotsford, native wanted to get back to the NHL as soon as possible last season, but when it became clear he would spend the year in the minors, he embraced the opportunity to get better.
“I just really focused on taking as much advice from Greener as I could, just putting that to use,” said Virtanen. ”I knew this year coming into (training) camp I had to really show what I could do. So far I think I’ve done that. I’ve just got to keep pushing.
“There’s always room to improve.”
Hired as the Canucks’ new head coach in April, Green worked tirelessly in the AHL with Virtanen, who looks quicker and leaner while using his six-foot-one, 215-pound frame at both ends of the ice.
“He used his speed when he needed to,” Green said of Virtanen’s performance Thursday. “There were some times when I talked to him about some things that I didn’t like. Little details. (Not) unlike other player.
“He played a good game.”
Michael Del Zotto and Darren Archibald, another forward fighting for a job, had the other goals for Vancouver, while Sean Monahan replied for Calgary. Mike Smith made 27 saves in taking the loss.
“That was our most complete game,” said Green. ”I liked the way we competed, I liked the way we created offence.”
Virtanen opened the scoring at the 4:52 mark of the first period, his fifth point of the exhibition schedule, after taking a nice drop pass from Sam Gagner and snapping a shot five-hole on Smith.
Nilsson, who was signed from the Buffalo Sabres over the summer to back up Jacob Markstrom, made a nice stop on a Kris Versteeg tip with six minutes left in the period before Virtanen rang a shot off the post on a 2-on-1 rush moments later.
“I felt good,” said the six-foot-six Nilsson. ”I felt calmer, felt I had better patience on my feet.”
Vancouver was without Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Thomas Vanek, Bo Horvat, Alexander Edler and Markstrom, among other veterans, against the Flames.
Calgary, meanwhile, brought most of the club’s NHL regulars, including Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie.
Brock Boeser, the Canucks’ other youngster looking like a good bet to make the roster, almost scored his fifth goal of the pre-season four minutes into the second after stripping Flames defenceman Dougie Hamilton, but Smith was there to make the save on the 23rd overall selection from 2015.
Vancouver eventually made it 2-0 at 7:25 on the power play when Del Zotto’s shot from the point hit a stick in the high slot and fluttered past a helpless Smith.
Archibald put the game to bed at 8:45 of the third when he came out of the penalty box and slipped a shot between Smith’s legs on a breakaway before Monahan broke Nilsson’s shutout bid with 6:03 left in regulation on the power play.
“Our team structure was good in all three zones,” said Green. ”We played a real good game against a real good hockey team.”
Note: Scottie Upshall, who has been with Vancouver on a professional tryout, was supposed to suit up, but was a late scratch. Green confirmed another team has interest in signing the 33-year-old forward. … The Canucks wrap up their exhibition schedule at home against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday, while the Flames visit the Winnipeg Jets. … Calgary opens the regular season at Edmonton next Wednesday. Vancouver hosts the Oilers on Oct. 7.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press