Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks has been sent to the minors for at least two games after spending the entire season with the team in 2015-16.
After the last pre-season game last fall, the Detroit Red Wings were faced with a vexing decision. Dylan Larkin had not only proved himself to the best rookie through training camp and the exhibition games, he was their best player. Rookie coach Jeff Blashill went to GM Ken Holland and told him that if he was going to have a chance to succeed as the Wings new coach, he needed Larkin in the lineup.
Holland complied, but told Blashill in no uncertain terms that if Larkin was either seeing spot duty on the fourth line or sitting up in the press box as a healthy scratch, the young man would be immediately sent to the minors. And when Larkin approached the Red Wings about leaving college and signing with them in the summer of 2015, essentially going all in and betting on himself, Holland told him that if he were looking out of the window of a bus going from Grand Rapids to Rockford in the middle of December, to remember that it was his decision to turn pro.
That, ladies and gentleman, is how you handle a young NHL player. It has obviously all worked out rather well for Larkin, but if it hadn’t he’d have joined fellow prospect Anthony Mantha grooming himself in the American League. The Red Wings have long been identified as a team that allows its prospect to become overripe and it seems to have worked out pretty well for them.
Let’s contrast that with the Vancouver Canucks. Faced with the decision on two 19-year-old players – Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann – the Canucks opted to keep both players. (Keeping in mind, of course, that the Canucks did not have the option to send either player to the AHL. Both had to either stay with the Canucks or go back to junior hockey.) Just over a year later, McCann has already been traded and is seeing fourth-line duty in Florida and Virtanen, after playing 10 games in the NHL and registering just one assist, was recently sent to the minors for a two-game attempt to try to have him find his game.
For all we know, there’s a chance neither Virtanen nor McCann is truly an NHL player and the Canucks may have whiffed on both players in the first round. But we also know that there has never, ever, been a player in NHL history whose long-term career has been ruined by not being rushed. There is a scrap heap full of them, however, of players who have been rushed.
The problem for Virtanen didn’t start this season. It started last season when the Canucks decided it would be best for his and McCann’s development to stay in the NHL rather than play junior hockey. Virtanen rarely got off the fourth line last season and averaged just 11:33 in ice time per game. No Canuck regular averaged less. Virtanen was also a healthy scratch 14 times last season and received fewer than 10 minutes of ice time in 15 of the 55 games he played. And this season, he was averaging 10:08, third lowest on the team among regulars, prompting him to make an issue of the lack of opportunity.
Those who watch the Canucks a lot more than your trusty correspondent claim that Virtanen has regressed this season and doesn’t seem terribly motivated. The same player with all the tools that every NHL team loves to have – good skater, great shot, a physical edge and a belligerent nature – has not been showing on the ice this season. Canucks coach Willie Desjardins has given him chances with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi as linemates and his play has still been left wanting. And now the Canucks are sending him down for two games to, in the words of Desjardins, “get his confidence up,” and “prove he’s an elite player.”
So why did this happen? Well, much of it goes back to last season when the Canucks gave him a roster spot, not because they thought he was an NHL player, but because they couldn’t put him in the AHL and didn’t want him to return to junior. Even after a disastrous WJC for both him and Canada, the Canucks elected to bring him back to the NHL instead of sending him to the Calgary Hitmen of the Western League.
(And if you’re looking for that rule to change anytime soon to allow elite teenagers to play in the minors, do not hold your breath. There appears to be absolutely no appetite at the NHL level to change things and the Canadian Hockey League, of course, is eager to keep things status quo.)
So now the same Canuck organization that handed him a roster spot are now trying to get it through to him that he must earn his ice time. And he must, but if that’s the case, it might not be a good idea to create a sense of entitlement by putting him on the team for the entire season last year. Now, faced with the option of sending him to the AHL, they send him there and then wonder why he might be suffering a crisis in confidence.
Perhaps this has been caught early enough and Virtanen gets the message and gets on the right track. Or perhaps, despite being a sixth overall pick, Virtanen is not as good as previously advertised. But if you want to diminish the chances of your young players developing at a pace that will give them the best chance of being long-time NHL players, do what the Canucks did.
A number of teams are getting to the point in the season where they have to decide whether or not to keep their talented young players in the NHL or send them back to junior hockey. Dylan Strome, who has scored 250 points in the past two seasons of junior hockey, has played six of the Arizona Coyotes’ first 12 games and is getting 13:26 per game in ice time. Teammate Lawson Crouse has played in nine games – one more and the Coyotes burn a year of his entry-level deal – and has averaged 10:40.
The Coyotes might want to look to the Canucks a year ago before they decide spot duty, and sometimes no duty, in the NHL is better for the long-term prospects of their players than going back to junior hockey.