VANCOUVER - Jake Virtanen is not recognizable to every Canadian junior hockey fan, but NHL scouts definitely know his name.
The 17-year-old Calgary Hitmen winger is expected to be among the top selections in next summer's NHL draft.
"I'd be very surprised if he wasn't," said Washington Capitals Western scout Terry Richardson. "In my opinion, he's a top 10, top 15 for sure. I don't get to see all the kids, of course, actually in Eastern Canada, but this kid's good. He's big. Strong. He's what everybody wants."
Virtanen, a New Westminster, B.C., native who grew up in the Fraser Valley communities of Langley, and Abbottsford, is helping his cause this week, as he's a big reason why the Hitmen remain in first place in the WHL's Western Conference.
He has five goals in his last four games and recorded his first WHL hat trick in a 6-3 win over the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Sunday. With eight goals and four assists in 14 games, he continues to progress from a rookie season in which he generated 16 goals and 18 helpers.
"My 16-year-old season was pretty good," said Virtanen, who holds dual Canadian-Finnish citizenship because his father was born in Finland.
"I finished strong. I had a strong second half of the season. I get drafted this year, so (the draft) is in the back of my mind. It's obviously one of the biggest years of my life.
"So I'm really looking forward to (doing well) this season. It's a huge challenge for me."
Virtanen has not set any specific goals while he attempts to help the Hitmen reach the Memorial Cup, though he's hopeful for a chance to play for Canada's entry at the world junior tournament during the Christmas holidays. But he is eager to live up to his pre-draft billing.
NHL Central Scouting has listed him as a player to watch, ranking him among only seven WHL A-level skaters. Meanwhile, International Scouting Services has ranked him No. 4 on its list of top 2014 prospects.
"I think it's pretty cool to be touted like that," he said. "It's an honour, obviously, but I've got to prove that I'm that kind of player and just work hard and just be as good a player as I am."
Richardson scouted the winger while he helped Canada win gold at last summer's Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and competed the year before at the World Under-17 Challenge. He said Virtanen has continually progressed since being chosen first overall in the WHL's 2011 bantam draft.
"He's your prototypical power forward, and he's got good hands," said Richardson.
But Hitmen president Kelly Kisio noted that it took Virtanen a while to make his presence known in the WHL.
"He started out a little slow last year and then, after Christmas, he really took off and he turned into a real good player," said Kisio. "This year, he started out a little slower, but he's getting it going again."
Kisio called Virtanen, who stands six-foot-one and weighs 210 pounds, "that all-around package" who can skate, shoot and score.
Virtanen displayed his high talent level Wednesday night even though the Hitmen suffered a 4-3 loss to the Giants in Vancouver.
Late in the first period, he drew a holding-the-stick penalty on Vancouver's Arvin Atwal while racing along the boards with the puck. The infraction prevented Virtanen from charging in alone on goal.
In the second period, he was breezing with the puck past another Vancouver player at the Giants blue-line when the scoring chance was whistled down due to an off-side call. Later in the second period, he came off the bench while changing on the fly, intercepted a pass, sidestepped a defender and fired the puck through Giants goaltender Payton Lee's legs for Calgary's first goal.
The marker started the Hitmen's comeback from a 3-0 deficit before their rally fell short in overtime.
Virtanen's inaugural WHL hat-trick came only 8:16 into the first period against the Hurricanes.
According to Dave Babych, a former NHLer who works in the Vancouver Canucks' player personnel department, Virtanen has a rare quality that players of his size often lack.
"He's got deceptive speed," said Babych. "He'll come out of nowhere and beat you."
Babych's son Cal, a 16-year-old North Vancouver, B.C., native, also plays for the Hitmen, and the two youngsters faced each other at times while playing minor hockey on B.C.'s Lower Mainland. So the former Canuck has seen Virtanen longer than many scouts.
"He was always a good player," said Babych. "But at that stage, you just don't know if kids are going to be able to take that step to the higher level. He's obviously been able to take that step."
While Virtanen has a size advantage over many other players, Babych said his determination has set him apart from other youngsters as they have attempted to climb the ladder to the pros.
"It's just a (higher) compete level," said Babych. "It's nothing more than that."
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