How likely is a breakout season for Jake Virtanen?

The young Canucks winger needs to take a step forward at 23.

Pass it to Bulis

The Canucks’ revitalization is being led by their first-round picks. Their core four of Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes are all from the first round and are providing Canucks fans with a lot of hope for the future.

There are a couple names missing from that group, however: fellow first-round picks Jake Virtanen and Olli Juolevi.

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Juolevi has yet to make his NHL debut, as his 2018-19 season was derailed by a serious knee injury that required surgery. He skated separately from the main group at Canucks development camp and is expected to be fully healthy by the time training camp begins. It’s a key season for the 21 year old, but there are still plenty of reasons to believe he can be a solid top-four defenceman for years to come in the NHL.

Virtanen, on the other hand, has already been in the NHL for parts of four seasons and will be 23 at the start of next season. It’s troubling that, at this point, Virtanen isn’t yet a core player for the Canucks. Can he get there? Can Virtanen become an indispensable top-six forward or is it time to accept that he’s a third-line winger and nothing more?

Virtanen has been a hot topic of late. Patrick Johnston at The Province wrote an astute article about how Micheal Ferland plays the style of game that the Canucks hope to see from Jake Virtanen. Alex Hoegler at The Canuck Way wrote about why the Canucks can't give up on Virtanen, while David Quadrelli with The Hockey Writers opined that Virtanen is due for a breakout season.

The latter article leans on one of the defences frequently mounted for Virtanen: power forwards take longer to develop. Johnston, however, made the point in his article that Virtanen has never really played like a power forward the way Ferland does, charging to the front of the net to score ugly goals and agitating with his physical presence.

Instead, Virtanen has always played similarly to Mason Raymond: speed on the outside, matched with an accurate shot and some two-way ability. That said, Virtanen is still just 22 and might be able to add more of that power forward element to his game. He showed flashes last season, driving hard to the net on occasion and battling hard along the boards, but the challenge will be to bring that drive more consistently.

So, let’s look at some power forwards of the past and compare their progression in points per game during their careers. Did they take longer to break out? Could Virtanen be on a similar path?

Jake Virtanen vs great power forwards, July 19, 2019

I looked at eleven power forwards from the past, including frequent Canucks comparables Cam Neely and Todd Bertuzzi. I charted their points-per-game progression by age. It should be kept in mind that these are unadjusted numbers: many of these players played during a higher scoring era.

Still, Virtanen is well below the majority of these great power forwards from the past at the same age. Neely, who is frequently brought up in Vancouver as a reason why you shouldn’t give up on a player too early, was already a point-per-game player by the age of 22 and was just short of a point per game at 21.

A more contemporary player, Milan Lucic, started scoring at a higher pace and had his career-best season at 22, scoring 30 goals and 62 points in 79 games during the 2010-11 season.

There are, however, a couple players that are closer to Virtanen’s production. Bertuzzi, though he had a much better rookie season at 20, had only slightly better production at 21 and 22 than Virtanen, and saw a slower build to becoming a dominant, point-per-game player. There’s a reason why he’s brought up as the prime example of power forwards taking longer to develop, even if the chart above illustrates that many power forwards break out far sooner.

The only issue is that Virtanen doesn't play anything like Bertuzzi. At all. Still, if you're looking for hope that Virtanen won't just break out, but become an elite power forward, Bertuzzi provides some numbers to back you up.

Then there’s John Leclair, who fell from a great rookie season to below Virtanen’s points per game at 22. He rebounded and, at 25, became one of the premiere goal scorers of his era. He had three-straight 50-goal seasons and he was a First-Team All-Star four times and Second-Team All-Star three times. It helped that he played with Eric Lindros, but he was still a beast.

A better comparable might be Shane Doan, whose points per game from 19-22 are pretty similar to that of Virtanen. At 23, Doan broke out, scoring 26 goals and 51 points in 81 games. He was a consistent 20-goal scorer for the rest of his career, almost, and hit highs of 31 goals and 78 points.

Perhaps that should be seen as the best-case scenario for Virtanen, as it’s unlikely that he follows in the footsteps of Bertuzzi or Leclair. Virtanen and Doan are even a similar size at 6’1” and 220+ lbs, and play the same position on the right wing. If Virtanen is going the route of Doan, then cracking 20 goals and 40 points needs to be his goal next season.

One issue with looking at successful power forwards is that we fall prone to survivorship bias. We’re only looking at the players that went on to success, not the ones with the same or similar performance at a young age that never developed into anything special.

For every John LeClair that erupted into a First-Team All-Star or Shane Doan that became a top-line winger, there are dozens of power forwards that never actually break out.

It works the other way around, of course: comparing Virtanen to great power forwards of the past and present is unfair to Virtanen himself. The possibility of him becoming like Neely or Bertuzzi is so remote that it places all sorts of unfair expectations on a player that doesn’t even play a typical power forward game. Even comparing him to Doan places heavy expectations on his shoulders.

Perhaps we could also compare Virtanen to some of the Canucks’ other attempts at finding a power forward from the recent past (and present).

Jake Virtanen vs lesser Canucks power forwards - July 19, 2019

That’s quite the motley crew. There’s Steve Bernier, brought in from Buffalo in hopes he would find chemistry with the Sedins. He had a fantastic rookie season at 20, but went on a steady decline from there.

Taylor Pyatt’s progression looks somewhat similar to Virtanen’s, which isn’t ideal. Brad Isbister came to the Canucks at the end of his career, long after his career-best season at 22. Zack Kassian’s production at 21 and 22 wasn’t far off from Virtanen’s, but, for various reasons, he never progressed much from there.

The recently-acquired Micheal Ferland is an interesting comparable, because he didn’t really break out until he was 25. Ferland started his NHL career at the same age Virtanen was last season and produced at about half the rate Virtanen did. When comparing the two players, recognizing that Ferland didn’t even make the NHL until he was 22 should provide some optimism that Virtanen can become a better player than Ferland is now.

There’s another way we could compare Virtanen to other forwards. We could look at players from the past couple decades that scored goals and put up points at a similar rate when they were 22 years old. To further refine our list, because that criteria produces a lot of names, we can also look at how those players performed at 21 as well.

That gives us an intriguing group of players that performed similarly to Virtanen at the ages of 21 and 22, at least in terms of goals and points per game. Obviously this doesn’t consider playing style at all, so it’s an imperfect comparison, but it still provides some idea of what we could expect from Virtanen next season.

  21 22 23
Player G/GP Pts/GP G/GP Pts/GP GP G Pts G/GP Pts/GP
Oskar Lindblom 0.09 0.26 0.21 0.41 ? ? ? ? ?
Anthony Duclair 0.09 0.26 0.20 0.41 74 19 33 0.26 0.45
Marco Sturm 0.16 0.36 0.17 0.40 77 21 41 0.27 0.53
Josh Bailey 0.16 0.40 0.16 0.40 38 11 19 0.29 0.50
Brandon Sutter 0.17 0.35 0.21 0.39 48 11 19 0.23 0.40
Daniel Sedin 0.11 0.29 0.18 0.39 82 18 54 0.22 0.66
Sam Bennett 0.16 0.32 0.18 0.38 ? ? ? ? ?
Josh Anderson 0.08 0.33 0.22 0.37 78 17 29 0.22 0.37
Jake Virtanen 0.13 0.27 0.21 0.36 ? ? ? ? ?
Mark Bell 0.15 0.35 0.17 0.35 82 21 45 0.26 0.55
Lars Eller 0.09 0.22 0.20 0.35 46 8 30 0.17 0.65
Josef Vasicek 0.18 0.40 0.18 0.35 82 19 45 0.23 0.55
Matt Stajan 0.19 0.34 0.19 0.34 82 10 39 0.12 0.48
Matt Cooke 0.10 0.24 0.17 0.33 82 13 33 0.16 0.40
J.T. Compher 0.14 0.24 0.19 0.33 66 16 32 0.24 0.48
Average         79 18 40 0.22 0.50

 

I grabbed players that were within 0.5 goals per game and 0.5 points per game of Virtanen in their 22-year-old seasons, but had a little more leeway for the 21-year-old seasons. That gave me a list of 14 similar players, including two that are the same age as Virtanen.

My favourite name that pops out when making this comparison is Daniel Sedin. Obviously, the odds of Virtanen having a similar career trajectory to Daniel is pretty far-fetched, but they produced at very similar rates at 21 and 22. Just ignore Daniel’s 20 goals as a 20-year-old rookie and they’re pretty close in goals at 21 and 22: 23 goals in 158 games for Daniel, 25 goals in 145 games for Jake.

Virtanen just needs an identical, playmaking twin.

Lars Eller is one of the closest comparables at 22: he broke out at 23, with the second-highest points per game on the list behind Daniel Sedin, albeit in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Unfortunately, that breakout wasn’t a sign of things to come and he never scored at that rate again, though he’s had a couple very good playoff runs, including 18 points in 24 games for the Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals in 2018.

Some of these players became true top-six forwards, while others topped out as third-liners. What did they do at 23?

On average, this group produced 18 goals and 40 points, while playing in around 79 games. That would be a small step up in goals and big step up in points for Virtanen. Would it be enough to qualify as a breakout season? Perhaps. It would certainly be a welcome source of secondary scoring: 40 points would have been fourth in scoring behind Pettersson, Horvat, and Boeser last season.

At the low end, there’s Matt Stajan’s 10 goals and Josh Anderson’s 29 points. At the high end is Josh Bailey’s 11 goals in just 38 games or Marco Sturm’s 21 goals in 77 games, and Daniel Sedin’s 54 points.

20 goals is certainly possible for Virtanen based on these comparable players. Even looking at last season, 20 goals was within his reach, as he hit a team high 9 posts and crossbars according to NHL.com. I’m skeptical about his ability to pick up significantly more assists, as he’s never shown a proclivity towards playmaking, but if he gets opportunities higher up the lineup, those assists could come.

Will he get that opportunity? Virtanen will be hard-pressed to play in the top six to start the season with the additions of J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland to a lineup that already has Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson, and Sven Baertschi, not to mention others battling for those spots like Nikolay Goldobin, Josh Leivo, and, when he returns, Antoine Roussel.

That means Virtanen will most likely start on the third line, but that line could be a little more offensively-inclined than last season. A line of Leivo and Virtanen with Adam Gaudette could provide some tertiary scoring, for instance. Then, when injuries inevitably strike, Virtanen will be a clear candidate to play on the second line. 

 

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