Jake Virtanen continues to improve in his third full NHL season. The 23-year-old is tied for second on the Canucks in even-strength scoring with 17 points at five-on-five through 36 games.
The Langley native is currently in the middle of his most productive NHL stretch to date, racking up three goals and 10 points over an 11-game span. He's also matched his career high in assists (10) with still over half a season to go.
Virtanen has taken steps forward in three straight years and is on pace for the first 20-goal, 40-point season of his NHL career. A big reason he's been finding success of late is because he's routinely playing to the exact strengths that made him a first-round draft pick in 2014.
Virtanen's strong shot, blazing speed and physical ability have been on display at times throughout his young NHL career, but we're starting to see him put his complete skill-set to use on more of a consistent basis this season.
Video: Jake Virtanen Mic'd Up vs. Canadiens (Dec. 17, 2019)
The former Calgary Hitmen winger, who won fastest skater at the Canucks SuperSkills competition last season with an impressive time of 13.471 seconds, has frequently been utilizing his speed and strength to drive to the net and create scoring chances.
Virtanen's goal in late-November against Pittsburgh was a showcase of how effective he can be when he's at his best. On this sequence, Virtanen gets the puck to Zack MacEwen in the defensive zone and rushes up ice. He recognizes Brian Dumoulin is playing MacEwen so he races to the front of the net, beats out Kris Letang to receive the return pass and quickly gets a shot past netminder Matt Murray.
Video: VAN@PIT: Virtanen tucks the puck five-hole on Murray
What might be most impressive about Virtanen's nine goals this season is that eight of them have come at even-strength. He's seen minimal power-play time this season after averaging over a minute with the man advantage last season. He's playing tenaciously, winning puck battles and sitting fourth on the team with 19 takeaways. A sign he's using his speed to his advantage like never before is that he's already drawn nine penalties this season after drawing just eight all of last year.
One noticeably improved area in Virtanen's game is his decision-making and hockey IQ. He's playing much smarter with the puck and making intelligent decisions instead of opting for the easy plays. There's been numerous instances this season where Virtanen exhibits patience and opts to make a great play instead of an obvious one.
In a recent game against Buffalo, Virtanen assisted on a pair of goals by linemate Antoine Rousell. His second helper of the game was a great example of the progress he's made when it comes to making decisions with the puck. As he comes down the wing on a rush alongside Rousell, Virtanen doesn't decide to shoot to score from long range or try to make a centering pass through two defenders. Instead, Virtanen smartly shoots low into Carter Hutton's pads to make the goaltender kick out a rebound in Rousell's vicinity.
Video: BUF@VAN: Roussel nets second rebound of the game
Another example of Virtanen's improved decision-making with the puck was a goal by Troy Stecher against Detroit earlier in the season. The play starts when Jake reads the play in the defensive zone and intercepts a pass from Mike Green. Virtanen then takes a quick look at his surroundings before taking off up-ice. Instead of taking the puck straight to the net or making the expected cross-ice pass, Virtanen stops up, turns on a dime and centers the puck to a trailing Stecher.
Video: DET@VAN: Stecher buries Virtanen's great dish
That Stecher goal isn't possible if Virtanen doesn't break-up the play in the defensive zone and then make time to look around before taking off. He was able to stop up and find the trailer because he knew he had teammates other than his far winger who were joining him on the rush.
Virtanen also lead the team in hits with a whopping 54 on the season. He's utilizing his large 6'1", 226 lbs frame to his advantage and making it very tough for opposing players to contain him. That physical play style has made him a perfect player to compliment the feisty Rousell and the skilled Adam Gaudette on the third line. This line has only played around 40 minutes together, but they're already been on the ice for six goals for and just one goal against.
When the Canucks manage to end their playoff drought, Virtanen will be a player to watch. We've seen it time and time again in the NHL postseason when players with physical prowess and goal-scoring ability end up making all the difference. After a long 82-game regular season, teams need guys behind their star players who can throw their weight around, win battles and get to the net to score dirty goals. Everything Virtanen has shown in the last three years indicates he's on track to becoming a very effective power forward.
Virtanen's play in the second half of the season will truly show how far he's come as a player, but he's improved his numbers in each of the past two years and is on track for his best season yet. Consistency is everything, and Virtanen is in the middle of his most productive NHL stretch to date where he's frequently relying on all the traits that made him such a highly touted NHL prospect over five years ago.