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Canucks to keep rookies McCann, Virtanen in NHL

by Kevin Woodley /

VANCOUVER -- Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen will stay in the NHL for now, the Vancouver Canucks said Sunday.

The Canucks made the two 19-year-old rookie forwards sweat a bit before letting each know he would not be sent back to his junior team before playing his 10th game in the League.

McCann felt pretty good about his chances of staying in the NHL after scoring his fifth goal, the most on Vancouver, in his ninth game Friday, but after the Canucks watched video clips Sunday highlighting all the mistakes he and Virtanen have made, he wasn't so sure.

Coach Willie Desjardins critiqued the young players while the video ran before turning it over to his veterans to finish ripping into McCann and Virtanen. Just as the two started to worry about being sent back to junior before playing in a 10th NHL game, 20-year-old center Bo Horvat ended the tension by standing up and telling McCann and Virtanen they would be staying with the Canucks.

"I was like, 'OK, what am I going to pack?'" McCann said. "Halfway through the seventh clip I did something wrong, I was like, 'OK, this is not a joke,' so it was good acting by Willie and the guys."

Horvat, who went through a similar initiation with Desjardins last season, admitted it was hard not to laugh.

"I think Jared was about to cry," Horvat said. "We ripped on them pretty good."

The tough video session made the good news Horvat delivered at the end feel that much better.

"Me and Jared both kind of looked at each other like, 'Is today the day we're going back to junior?'" Viraten said. "The confidence was so low, and everyone was ripping on you, and then when you find out you make the team, it's pretty special."

Virtanen will play his ninth game Monday against the Philadelphia Flyers, so the Canucks could have waited one more game before deciding whether to keep him for a 10th game, when the first year of his entry-level contract would kick in, or send him back to junior.

After meeting with general manager Jim Benning on Saturday, Desjardins said there was no need to wait.

"We felt they are going to develop the most here," Desjardins said.

It's not a statement Desjardins makes lightly. He was hesitant to keep Horvat as a 19-year-old last season, but after watching Horvat go from playing fewer than 10 minutes a game in his first month to averaging almost 14 minutes after March and scoring 10 of his 13 goals after the All-Star break, Desjardins admitted it was easier to keep more young players this season.

"Both guys deserve to be here, and saying that, there is still lots to learn," Desjardins said. "That's one thing we are counting on, that by January we are going to have an even better player."

Virtanen, who was the sixth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, has two assists in eight games while averaging 9:59 of ice time, the lowest on the Canucks. But the 6-foot-1, 208-pound right wing from the nearby suburb of Abbotsford has shown he is ready physically for the NHL, using his speed to get in on the forecheck; his 29 hits lead Vancouver.

McCann, the 24th pick of the 2014 draft, made his case to stay by scoring five goals while playing on the fourth line, but there are questions about whether he can keep up in his own end of the rink. McCann is averaging 10:45 per game but has seen his ice time reduced when the Canucks are trying to protect a lead in the third period, leading to questions about his ability to battle big centers in the Western Conference at 6-foot, 179 pounds.

"They bring a youthful enthusiasm that has been contagious, and they bring different skill sets," Benning said. "Jake is fast, he brings us speed and a physicality, and Jared bring us speed and a skill set that we think is going to be important to our team this year and moving forward."

If there are prolonged struggles, Benning said the Canucks won't hesitate to loan either player to Canada for the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship around Christmas or send him back to junior before he plays a 41st game, at which point the season would count toward free agency. Desjardins said each could be a healthy scratch at times.

In the meantime, there's still all those mistakes from the video to correct.

"We did set it up a little bit to make them sweat," Desjardins said. "I think it's great to get to the NHL. I don't think it's too bad to take a little heat before you get that opportunity. … What we said was some in jest, but there's a little truth that we gotta keep working to get better."

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