PENTICTON, B.C. — Micheal Ferland hit everything that moved in the Calgary Flames’ first-round playoff defeat of the Vancouver Canucks last season. Jake Virtanen took notice from afar.
“He was in the guys’ heads,” Virtanen said of the bruising Flames forward. “He was a big factor in that win just being physical and wearing guys down.”
The sixth overall pick at the 2014 draft, Virtanen wants to bring a similar style — as well as his scoring touch — to the NHL this season with the Canucks, who could be in need of both after many Western Conference teams reloaded this summer.
The 19-year-old demonstrated some of that physicality at the Young Stars rookie tournament, levelling Edmonton Oilers phenom Connor McDavid and defenceman Darnell Nurse with crunching checks on Friday night in the showcase event that also included prospects from the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets.
The hit on McDavid — who along with Nurse was Virtanen’s Canadian teammate at the world juniors — drew the ire of the Oilers, but the Vancouver prospect said that’s an important part of his game.
“I know (McDavid) pretty well,” Virtanen said with a smile. “It’s pretty funny. I told him I was going to give it to him when I saw him in Toronto a couple weeks ago.”
The six-foot-one 212-pound winger from Abbotsford, B.C., missed the beginning of last season because of shoulder surgery, but still managed to put up 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists) in 50 games with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen before adding 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 14 playoffs outings. Virtanen then joined the AHL’s Utica Comets, recording one assist in 10 post-season games.
“You know he has a good shot, good hands and can score goals,” said Travis Green, who coaches in Utica and ran the Canucks’ bench at the Young Stars tournament. “Ultimately you want Jake Virtanen to be a power forward that can be a real physical force on the team and score some goals while he’s doing it.”
Brendan Gaunce, the 26th pick in 2012 who’s also looking for a spot with the big club out of training camp, played with Virtanen during his stint with the Comets last season and saw his potential first-hand.
“I think powerful is a good term to describe him. He’s got a powerful shot, he’s a powerful skater, he’s powerful on the walls,” said Gaunce, a 21-year-old winger from Markham, Ont. “He’s got that raw talent and he’s driven to be a good player.”
Virtanen is too young to play in the AHL on a full-time basis in 2015-’16, meaning that Canucks can keep him for a nine-game audition before deciding whether or not to return him to junior.
“It’s in the back of my mind for sure that I could be in Vancouver,” he said. “But I’m not going to look too far ahead.”
He could try to follow the path of Bo Horvat, who took part in the Young Stars tournament last year, had a good camp and managed to stick with the Canucks past the nine-game mark, becoming one of their better forwards as the season progressed.
“Bo had a really good season last year,” said Virtanen. “With the youth movement and everything happening right now I think if I just keep playing the way I am, just playing my game and working hard, hopefully I can grab a spot.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press