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Hitmen forward Virtanen highly touted heading into draft-eligible season

by Bryce Forbes / Calgary Flames

I’m not really worried about it right now. We still have a year to go but when it gets closer, it’ll will be cool to see where I go.Jake Virtanen on the 2014 NHL Draft

CALGARY, AB -- Jake Virtanen says he doesn’t keep day-to-day track of the 2014 NHL Draft rankings.

His family and friends might mention a few things to him every now and then, but he doesn’t actively seek out where experts have him being selected next June.

But if he did ever take a gander at one, the Calgary Hitmen forward would likely be quite thrilled.

International Scouting Services has him slotted fifth overall. NHL Central Scouting Services lists him on their Futures Watch. Red Line Report ranks him at fourth.

Anyway you cut it, the first pick in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft is heading into the most important year of his young hockey career.

“I’ve obviously seen a few things on the internet or in a newspaper when a friend points it out to me,” Virtanen said.

“If I see it, okay, but I’m not really worried about it right now. We still have a year to go but when it gets closer, it’ll will be cool to see where I go.”

Last season was his first full campaign in the WHL, and the coaches weren’t going to let him take anything for granted.

He started off in the bottom two lines, being forced to earn the big line minutes.

As the season progressed, he lived up to expectations and those responsibilities increased.

Around February, he was placed on a line with veterans Brooks Macek and Victor Rask, and the chemistry clicked. As one of the top two lines for the Hitmen, he helped the team reach the WHL Eastern Conference Final where they fell in seven games to the Edmonton Oil Kings.

He finished the year with 16 goals, 18 assists in 62 games, adding six more points in the off-season.

Virtanen was already a big boy as it was last year – clocking in at 6-foot-0 and 205 pounds near the end of the last season – and he had no problem showing it, going toe-to-toe with anyone who came calling.

But after last season, Virtanen knew he needed to get stronger.

He took one week off to heal bumps and bruises, before jumping back in the weight room.

“I didn’t really have goals,” he said, regarding his off-season program. “Working out this year was a big thing because I wanted to lose body fat and gain muscle for the season coming up because this is my draft year.”

On a program created by Abbotsford Heat strength and conditioning coach Mike Thompson, he was in the gym five days a week.

Two days devoted to cardio, two more to lower body, and the final day for upper body. Add in a couple ice-sessions as well against professional players from all levels.

After the first month, he had already added five pounds of muscle, spending the rest of the summer working on transitioning the new weight onto the ice.

“It translated pretty well on the ice,” Virtanen said. “I felt a lot stronger, I felt my shot was harder, I was shooting on (Flames goaltending prospect Laurent) Brossoit so I could see how I was developing.”

At training camp, he weighed in at 6-foot-1, 210-pounds and has toyed with the idea of putting on five more pounds onto his frame.

For the 17-year-old, he’s one of the biggest top prospects for the upcoming draft.

He put that size to the test late in the off-season, donning the Team Canada jersey at the 2013 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

As one of the larger players on the team, he said head coach Dale Hunter pulled him aside and asked him to play a new role.

“He wanted me to be creating havoc in front of the net, getting the puck in deep, hitting guys,” Virtanen noted.

“It added to my game because I had never played that role before, I was the goal scorer, playmaker role but my coach wanted me to get in deep. Now I know if (Hitmen head coach) Mike (Williamson) asks me to do that, I know I can.”

Canada was the odds-on favourite heading into the tournament – they’ve won gold five times in a row beforehand.

They wouldn’t disappoint, picking up their sixth consecutive gold but not without having to sweat it out beforehand.

In the competitive Group A, all four teams had the chance to make the playoffs heading into the final day of the round robin.

Team Canada needed a shootout to down Switzerland, but scenarios still existed for the game between the Czech Republic and Sweden where they wouldn’t move onto the playoffs.

“All the guys were on their phones, trying to figure out what the score was,” said Virtanen, as the team was driving back to their hotel.

Luckily it turned out in their favour, and the Canadians won the next two games handedly to take home the gold medal.

Now he’s back, and with the departures of former linemates Macek and Rask, as well as captain Cody Sylvester, ready to step into a bigger role up front for the Hitmen.

“I finished off well last year and hope to start off how I ended,” he said. “I will try to be on the first powerplay, end up with as much ice time as I can and try to make an impact on the team.

“I know the coaches are going to ask more out of me because I’ve been here for a year.”

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