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The backyard boys

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
“From British Columbia, the Vancouver Canucks select….”

If the preceding phrase is an unfamiliar one to you, don’t feel too bad. Before grabbing Abbotsford’s Jake Virtanen with the 6th overall pick at the 2014 NHL Draft, the Canucks hadn’t used their first pick on a British Columbia prospect in over 30 years. In addition to that, the team had selected only one BC product in 34 consecutive rounds (Victoria’s Wesley Myron in 2012).

In 1983, the Canucks also dipped into their backyard, selecting rugged winger Cam Neely, who spent his formative years playing minor hockey less than 50 kilometers away from Abbotsford in Maple Ridge. But the Virtanen and Neely comparison doesn’t end there.

Ever since he was prematurely forced into retirement in the late 1990s, NHL teams have been searching high and low for the next Neely. Jarome Iginla came the closest to replicating Neely’s dominant style of play during his peak years with Calgary, but there have been few other players who have been able to impact the game with a combination of skill and intimidation that matches what Neely brought to the table with the Canucks and (mostly) the Bruins. Neely could skate around guys with his skill, but he preferred to bulldoze through them with brute force.

The Canucks didn’t select Virtanen at the draft this year because of where he was born. He was the best prospect available when they walked up to the podium. However, you can bet that Neely was in the back of the minds of Vancouver’s management team throughout the scouting process with Virtanen. Both Jim Benning and Trevor Linden competed against Neely in the NHL, and Benning has spent the past few years working closely alongside him within the Bruins front office. Linden also leaned on Neely for advice during his first few days and weeks on the job.

Cam Neely 2.0?

Is it fair to say that Virtanen is the next Neely? Not a chance. Neely was one of the best forwards in the league during his prime seasons. But in terms of how Virtanen approaches the game, there is a lot of “Bam Bam Cam” in him. Here’s Neely’s scouting report from his playing days:

“Neely's success stemmed largely from his hard, accurate shot, quick release, and his willingness to engage in the more physical aspects of the game. At 6 ft 1 in and 215 lbs, Neely was as devastating with his body checks and fists as he was with his goal scoring exploits.”

And here’s another Neely report from a mid 1980’s Hockey News magazine:

“[Neely] was a defensive liability, wouldn’t score many goals, and might not even win all of his fights. But it did say he didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit,” was a strong skater with balance and speed, difficult to knock down because of his strength, and impossible to intimidate.”

And here is a recent scouting report on Virtanen from the Red Line Report:

“Loaded with some of the best overall physical tools in this year’s entire class. He’s a tremendous skater with speed, balance, terrific agility for a big man, and an explosive initial burst. Also has a rifle shot with a lightning release. Has the size to drive through defenders, but needs to use his size to better advantage. Should initiate physically and engage more in corner battles. Also needs to use his linemates better and take defensive responsibilities more seriously.”

The similarities should be popping off the page. Hard, accurate shots. Well-rounded skaters who are tough to knock off the puck. Defensive improvement needed. Impossible to intimidate. It took Neely a few years to develop a consistent physical edge, and Virtanen is on that very same path right now.

Red Line Report wasn’t lying about Virtanen’s rifle shot:

Neely was also known for his devastating body checks. Virtanen has built similar reputation in the WHL:

And, of course, both of them can use their hands for more than just scoring goals. Here is one of a few highlights of Neely’s time with the Canucks:

And here is Virtanen in a spirited scrap from last season:

Neely added a lot of weight to his 6-1 frame in the subsequent years following the 1983 NHL Draft, but he always played much bigger than whatever size he was listed at. He transformed himself into an intimidating wrecking ball with tremendous skill as soon as the skates were on. He hit to hurt and he did it on every single shift. Once Neely started to get comfortable in the NHL, he figured out that going through defenders suited his playing style more than going around them ever did. At 6-1, Virtanen has a similar build – he will likely add another 10 pounds before he hits the NHL, but he doesn’t have the towering 6-3 or 6-4 frame that we expect to see with power forwards.

Although Virtanen compares himself to Rick Nash as a player, Neely makes much more sense – same height, very likely the same NHL playing weight, and the same strengths (and weaknesses) as prospects. You can’t blame Virtanen for not using the Neely comparison though, as he was less than three weeks old when Neely retired in 1996. Virtanen doesn’t have Nash’s size or hands, but he has a better shot and is much more aggressive. He has a lot of work to do if he wants to become half the player Neely was, but he is on the right track.

It took over 30 years for the Canucks to look in their backyard during the 1st round at the NHL Draft. Let’s hope this hometown story has a happier ending for the team.

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