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Surgery doesn't alter NHL goal for Canucks' Virtanen

by Aaron Vickers / NHL.com

PENTICTON, BC -- Jake Virtanen was relegated to spectator Friday as his Vancouver Canucks dropped a 4-3 overtime decision to the Edmonton Oilers in their tournament opener at the Young Stars Classic.

As teammates departed from practice Saturday, the 18-year-old remained on the ice for an extra couple of spins around the rink.

It's the tough reality the Canucks first pick (No. 6) in the 2014 NHL Draft faces as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

"It's frustrating," said Virtanen, who was ranked the NHL's No. 24 prospect by NHL.com for the 2014-15 season. "I think when I watched the game [Friday] night, it was pretty frustrating to watch. I want to be out there real quick. I want to be back into it. It's the time of year when the season is starting up and you want to be out there with the guys. It's tough to watch.

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"You've got to think health is first, though. It's going to be tough, just watching the first bit of the season. For me, it's just trying to get healthy. That's the most important thing right now, and being the top player I can be when I am."

Virtanen underwent the surgery in May after playing much of the 2013-14 season with the injury -- including a trip to the World Under-18 Championship where he helped Canada to a bronze medal finish.

The surgery was shortly after the tournament and with his arm in a sling, Virtanen missed the NHL Scouting Combine. He was able to pull on the Canucks jersey onstage at the NHL Draft on June 27th, though he couldn't participate in Vancouver's development camp that followed in mid-July.

But being in the Canucks' dressing room in Penticton this week has lifted his spirits.

"I think that being around the guys here and the experience of being in the dressing room is keeping that feeling that I'm not just here for practices," said Virtanen, who scored 45 goals for the WHL's Calgary Hitmen last season. "I'm feeling like part of the guys here. They took me in. I didn't get to play with them at development camp but they took me in like a family. It's good to be in here."

It'll be good too, Virtanen admitted, to be in Vancouver.

Though it's unclear if he'll be participating in the on-ice session of the team's main camp, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound right wing still has hopes of making the Canucks.

It just won't be out of camp.

"Right now, it's going to be tough if I really want to make the team this year," Virtanen said. "If the team wants me to stay up, I'd love to do that and maybe try to make that team and if not, I'll go to Calgary and have another good year there. I'm just trying to focus on developing and being the top player I can be and improve and develop as a player."

Vancouver opens the 2014-15 season Oct. 8th against the Calgary Flames. Virtanen is hoping to be cleared for contact Oct. 15th. If the Abbotsford, B.C., native has designs of cracking the Canucks roster, he'll have to do so on the fly.

Utica Comets coach Travis Green, who is guiding Vancouver and Virtanen at the Young Stars Classic, doesn't expect any problems for the power forward prospect when it comes to giving the NHL a go.

"This day and age the way surgeries are done, you go around the NHL and there are lots of guys who have had shoulders done or surgeries here and there," said Green, who logged 970 NHL games with five different franchises during a 14-year playing career. "I don't think it'll be an issue at all once he's back and healthy and ready to go."

Once cleared to go, Green doesn't expect any hesitation out of Virtanen.

"That usually happens that last month when you're actually practicing and you're taking contact in practice and you're building up to when you're game ready," he said. "Any medical staff, whether he's in junior or he's in Vancouver, he'll be over that by the time he gets into game action."

Virtanen doesn't expect hesitation either.

He just knows he has to stay patient until his opportunity comes.

"Mid-October, that's what I'm hoping and that's pretty well when the NHL season starts," Virtanen said. "I'm hoping to stay up and just try to make my dream of becoming an NHL hockey player come true.

"That's what I'm looking forward to doing."

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