GM Benning will decide Virtanen’s short-term fate

Mark Allan

2016-01-08

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Here’s Jake Virtanen at his physical, rambunctious best, not the undisciplined, penalty-prone version on display at the 2016 world junior championship.

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The Canucks have an important decision to make about Jake Virtanen within two days.

The budding power winger is back in Vancouver after the crushing disappointment of a sixth-place finish at the world junior championship.

Canada’s worst placing since 1998 – finishing ahead of only Denmark, Slovakia, Switzerland and Belarus – provoked angry and even bitter reactions across the country.

Nowhere was that more evident in Vancouver, where the Province newspaper lived down to its tabloid format with a large headline screaming ‘Goat-medal winner.’ That was accompanied by a photo of Virtanen, the Canucks’ sixth-overall pick in 2014.

The 19-year-old didn’t deserve to be singled out like that because he was only one of several Canadian players who took untimely penalties that hurt his team. Sub-par goaltending was another huge factor.

Still, Virtanen had just one assist in five games and 10 penalty minutes, six of them in a 6-5 quarter-final loss that played into the hands of a daunting Finnish power play.

After initially joining several teammates in making excuses, Virtanen was more inclined to take responsibility in a media scrum back in Vancouver.

Facing intense media scrutiny usually reserved for NHL stars, the young man handled pointed questions calmly and straightforwardly.

That brings us back to the decision about whether to keep him up with the big club or ship him back to junior. The Canucks apparently have decided to wait until Jan. 10 to decide. That's the Western Hockey League trading deadline, and the Canucks seemingly want to ensure Virtanen would be in a junior program that they believe would be good for his development.

In spite of his composure in the scrum, Virtanen has only four points in 19 games as an NHL rookie, was a last-minute loan to the national junior team and was clearly far off his best game in Helsinki.

The struggling Canucks are awkwardly transitioning to a post-Sedins team that will have to build its way back up to a legitimate playoff threat en route to again being a Stanley Cup contender.

Young players are getting NHL ice time. Is it too much too soon?

Nobody is suggesting Virtanen is not still an outstanding prospect, but the franchise has a poor record of drafting and developing players. That’s the biggest reason why it hasn’t got a Cup to show for more than 40 years in the NHL.

That in turn fires the impatience of a rabid hockey market in the city that doesn’t trust a winning streak and rapidly leaps off the bandwagon at the first sign of trouble.

It’s a huge amount of pressure for veterans, let alone players still in their teens.

The team’s history is littered, beginning with Dale Tallon in 1972, with draft picks who never blossomed with the Canucks.

So if Virtanen was frustrated with his NHL play and disappointed by being loaned to the national squad, how would he react to being demoted to the AHL. Or continuing to be frustrated with the Canucks?

Over to you, Jim Benning. This is why NHL general managers get paid the big bucks.

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The play of Dmytro Timashov at the world junior championship enhanced Mark Hunter’s reputation as a canny assessor of young hockey talent.

In spite of his Russian-sounding name, Timashov totaled two goals and five assists for Sweden's fourth-place team.

One of five Maple Leaf prospects at the tournament in Finland, he was tabbed by Hunter ahead of the first puck drop as someone who was ready to blossom. That in turn makes the Leafs look better for hiring Hunter as their director of player personnel.

Timashov, a fifth-rounder at the 2015 draft, has parlayed explosive speed, agile puckhandling and cunning creativity into 53 points in 29 games for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.

Regarding another Leaf prospect, there’s no solid update yet about fellow Swede William Nylander, sent reeling prematurely from the Helsinki tourney with a suspected concussion in his team’s first game. Since he scored on his first shot, there’s no telling how many points Nylander would have had or whether that might have helped the fourth-place Swedes place higher.

Considering the highly skilled Nylander was leading all AHL scorers when he left for Finland, the important thing is how he recovers from his injury and resumes his development.

Now that the Maple Leafs have finally embarked on an overdue rebuild, the future looks brighter for their long-suffering fans.

Besides Nylander and Timashov, Toronto prospects Mitch Marner and Travis Dermott played for Canada at the world championship tournament. Marner, like Nylander, a mighty talented forward, led his country’s team with four goals and two assists.

And the news keeps getting better for Leaf fans.

Acquired from the Penguins in the Phil Kessel dump, prospect Kasperi Kapanen had a goal and three assists to help get Finland into the championship game. He then sealed the deal with a championship-clinching wraparound in overtime to give the hosts a 4-3 OT triumph over arch-rival Russia.

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Travis Konecny , a bright 18-year-old prospect of the Philadelphia Flyers, has been traded by the Ottawa 67's to the Sarnia Sting. The native of London, Ont., and 2015 first-round NHL draft pick has seven goals and 38 assists in 29 Ontario Hockey League games this season.

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The Ontario Junior Hockey League leads the way with 12 players selected for the 2016 Canadian Junior Hockey League Prospects Game on Jan. 26 in Surrey, B.C. The BCHL is next with nine players and the Alberta Junior Hockey League follows with eight.

The game was created to showcase the top NHL prospects in the CJHL as identified by NHL Central Scouting. The game features players from the CJHL's five western leagues (BCHL, AJHL, SJHL, MJHL, SIJHL) competing against players from the CJHL's five eastern leagues (NOJHL, OJHL, CCHL, QJHL, MHL).

The winning team is awarded the President's Cup. Player selection for the annual CJHL Prospects Game is jointly done by the CJHL and NHL Central Scouting.

While it can be a tough climb for players at this level to ascend to the NHL, it is possible. NHL Hall of Famer Brett Hull is the most obvious example.

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