Ben Kuzma: Fans’ Shotgun Jake salute helps Canuck have fun while improving game
Canucks winger always under heavy scrutiny, but has found fun side to his goal salutes.
BOSTON — There’s only one setting on the Jake Virtanen heater. It’s high. It’s always going to be high. And whether Virtanen is taking first-line shifts, is taken off the top trio in the third period or getting two shifts in overtime — all that happened Tuesday in Detroit — there’s an emerging game in the Vancouver Canucks’ right-winger that Travis Green monitors like the stock market. Whether his play is up or down, the head coach needs to react like any wise investor, because Virtanen’s value is rising. Seven points in his first 16 games are encouraging — especially five goals that took him until Dec. 21 of last season to match — but he’s also first in club takeaways (15), fourth in hits (34) and vastly improved at 10th in giveaways (5). Last season, Virtanen led the club in takeaways with 51, but his 32 giveaways were only exceeded up front by Daniel Sedin with 37. He also led forwards in hits (156) and was fifth in shots (130). So, statistically, the 22-year-old New Westminster native and Abbotsford-raised hockey product is trending in the right direction.
“I probably wouldn’t have put Jake out in overtime last year,” Green said Thursday before his club faced the Bruins at the TD Garden in Boston. “With his skating and the strength he has, that part of his game is suited for that. “And he has learned and understands the defensive side of the 3-on-3, which is very important because you’re going to give up odd-man rushes if you’re on the wrong side of a player because it happens fast.” And because it’s such a quick game with quick decisions, Virtanen was limited to just 3:02 in the third period Tuesday in Detroit and replaced on the top line by Brendan Leipsic. However, Virtanen would log 15:59, his third-highest minutes of the season, and that included two overtime shifts and 1:57 of action. But every shift matters to Green. “I didn’t like parts of his game that night and Jake knows he usually won’t play as much,” added Green. “It’s no different than any other player. But I have a good sense when he’s on or off and he’s been on a lot more this year.” Virtanen knew he made miscues in Detroit and a day to reset speaks to his growth. He’s not mad. He’s determined. “I could definitely sense something with Travis,” recalled Virtanen. “There was the offside where they (Wings) scored and was called off with a challenge, but I’ve got to make a better play. I put it (puck) in the far corner instead of short — just little things like that. That could have been it, but I’ve got to be better in my D-zone, too.” However, Virtanen has been good enough to get power-play time and those overtime shifts speak to sufficient progress in the way he processes and plays. “It’s nice,” said Virtanen. “I love playing OT and there’s lots of room out there. I can use my speed and be fast. And I feel like Travis has seen me play 3-on-3 before and knows I can create space. And if the puck is turned over, I can get back quick and stop things or create a turnover. “Obviously, it’s having that trust between us. He’s been putting me out late in games and I’m feeling confident. I’m holding on to the puck longer and not just forcing a play if I have guys on me.” Yet, amid the endless scrutiny, Virtanen is also having fun. A lot of fun. Part of it is meshing with an emerging younger core in a roster transition. And part of that is becoming a focal point on social media — especially with the Shotgun Jake hilarity when he scores. The Twitter takes and videos of hockey fanatics consuming a celebratory beer as quickly as possible are not lost on Virtanen.
Instead of endless Twitter timeline streams examining every aspect of his game, the faithful can’t wait for the next Virtanen goal and a run to the fridge or the Rogers Arena concession for a brew. “It’s unreal,” he chuckled. “I really enjoy it — especially being in my hometown. My brother sent me a picture of some place in Abbotsford that has beers now that are named after the whole thing. So, it’s pretty cool. All my buddies have been sending me pictures of it.”
Keeping a balance between being hard on a player and rewarding proficiency is the fine line for Green. He knows Virtanen better than most. He knows what buttons to push and when to push them. “We have to be careful,” he stressed. “There’s teaching and being hard on a player and there’s not taking away confidence. A lot of time it comes back to the player. Does he deserve the treatment and does he deserve criticism to move on and learn from it? “The heat is always on but it’s keeping your confidence. Believing in yourself is the best way to play.” email@example.com/benkuzma
NEXT GAME: Saturday
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Author: Ben Kuzma