The two rookies have made impacts in different ways and with Vancouver in transition, getting more NHL reps will be helpful. Plus, GM Jim Benning is giving himself flexibility on the matter.
The Vancouver Canucks will not be sending rookies Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen back to junior right now – but they made the teenagers earn it.
According to an NHL.com story, the young forwards were put through a gruelling and cutting video session highlighting all the mistakes they’ve made in their short pro careers to date. But in the end, it was just a cruel (and hilarious) way of setting up a nice punchline: both were staying in Vancouver for the time being. Here’s a look at the grind-out:
With McCann and Virtanen at or approaching that mystical nine-game mark (wherein the tenth game would trigger their entry-level contracts), the Canucks had to make a decision, since both players are too young to serve in the AHL.
Virtanen leads the Canucks in hits with 32 through nine games, while McCann has been the team’s top goal-scorer with five markers in 10 games. Are they finished products? Of course not. But the Canucks are winning with the teens and there are more pros to keeping the pair than cons.
For one, Vancouver is in a weird transitional period where the team has some excellent veterans and great-looking kids, but not much of a middle. Player such as McCann, Virtanen, Bo Horvat and Ben Hutton are part of the next wave and need to get up to speed before the Sedin twins, Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis age out.
It’s a benefit that the Canucks are playing well right now, but even if the team was scuffling, the Vancouver brain trust of coach Willie Desjardins and GM Jim Benning have made the right call here. Benning noted that passing the nine-game threshold is just one cleared hurdle. The teens could still be sent back to junior before the 41-game mark – at which point a year of free agency eligibility is earned – and could also be loaned out to Team Canada for the world juniors in late December.
That last point will be particularly important for international observers, as Virtanen won gold at the tournament last year, providing a wrecking-ball presence up front for the Canadians. McCann’s skill and prowess as a center would be a great addition too, especially since the Canadians will not have Connor McDavid and may not get Robby Fabbri back from the St. Louis Blues, either.
That 2015 squad also featured Curtis Lazar, who was loaned out by the Ottawa Senators. He returned to the NHL after and helped the Sens make that insane playoff push that ended in an admirable first-round loss to Montreal.
So really, Vancouver is playing with house money here. Should Virtanen return to junior, he would go back to the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, a well-run franchise currently holding a playoff spot. McCann would jump back to Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL and the Greyhounds have a similar track record of developing NHLers. The Hounds are struggling right now, but could easily make the post-season with McCann’s help, if it came to that (we’re also only like, a month into the season).
In the meantime, McCann and Virtanen can lap up the experience surrounding them in Vancouver and continue to develop as pro players. Virtanen even got his first NHL goal Monday night versus Philadelphia, showcasing his power and skill in the process:
Whether they stay in Canucks uniforms full-time or wear several different sweaters in 2015-16, they have been put in a position to succeed by Vancouver’s brass.