Why are the Oilers ready to take a chance on Jake Virtanen?
PENTICTON, BC — Jake Virtanen. Evander Kane. Zack Cassian. Andre Cogliano.
How did these four names end up in the same column the day the Edmonton Oilers made headlines by signing Virtanen to a pro tryout?
Well, read on.
Virtanen comes to this boot camp trial after being tried in British Columbia Supreme Court in July on one count of sexual assault, stemming from a 2017 incident in Vancouver. Virtanen claimed in court that the encounter was consensual, and a jury of his peers found him not guilty on July 26.
« It was very tough to get through, very tough to get through, » Virtanen told media in Edmonton on Monday. “You learn a lot about yourself, about who you are as a person. There’s a lot of self-reflection about who you are. Your self-esteem… It was a long process.
Virtanen still faces a civil lawsuit in the matter, so the Oilers are taking a chance on a player who has yet to fully put the allegations behind him. So why are the Oilers willing to take a risk that far outweighs any reward when it comes to Virtanen, who has been an average NHL player at best through the first seven professional seasons and 317 NHL games?
Anyone who has watched this team knows the Oilers are no strangers to taking a risk on a controversial player who has faced legal issues outside of the game.
Evander Kane signed with the Oilers midway through last season while still facing a longstanding lawsuit filed in July 2016 by a Buffalo-area woman who accused the player of assaulting her. In April, the two sides reached a settlement while Kane played for his team down the stretch.
But Kane, who signed a four-year contract with the Oilers last summer, is a front-row player and a 30-goal scorer. He is a vastly superior player to Virtanen in all categories.
Virtanen is a 10-goal scorer who has never had good defensive play. He also struggles to stay in shape. So he comes to Edmonton as a third-line or fourth-line player, likely to play league minimum if he plays at all.
This brings us to Zack Kassian.
Like Kassian, a first-round pick from the Buffalo Sabers who went to the Canucks in exchange for fellow first-rounder Cody Hodgson, Virtanen was drafted sixth overall by Vancouver in 2014. He has always been looked at through that lens. , and never lived up to its draft status.
“I should never have been drafted this high,” said a professional scout based in British Columbia. “For me, you have to believe in justice and give it a chance. But on the hockey side, he needs a tough coach who stays with him all the time.
Kassian eventually landed in Edmonton as a Bottom 6 winger. Expectations were far lower and he thrived for a time, extending his career and cementing a role as a depth player.
Virtanen will enter the Edmonton market the same way, behind Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi and maybe even Zach Hyman on the right side. The expectations and its probable ceiling are as low as possible.
« I have to find my way on any line, » Virtanen said. “It’s in the bottom 6 that I’m going to start, and that’s where I’m going to have to learn. I want to be a player there – a 200 foot player and do my best every day.
Virtanen talks about a good game. But is it authentic?
Only his play will answer that question, which brings us to Andrew Cogliano.
The Oilers drafted Cogliano 25th overall and a potential Top 6 center. By the time he played three seasons in Edmonton, it became clear that Cogliano’s calling was to be a speedy, shorthanded winger.
Eventually, Cogliano — a smart, industrious, and physically fit player throughout his career — embraced the new role at Anaheim. To date, he has played 1,140 games, about 700 more than he would have played had he stuck to his guns as a center scorer.
Here’s what two BC-based scouts had to say about Virtanen, who each have over 100 player views:
• “Good size, patina really well. Never found consistency in his game,” said one. “He’s always wanted to play a game of skill, but he’s more suited to a physical role, Bottom 6. He can help you if he has the right mindset. If he thinks, ‘I have another chance now. What can I do to help?’ He’s a third- or fourth-line winger who needs to reassess who he is and how he does things.
“For me, it’s a good bet for Edmonton…because it hasn’t cost them anything yet.
• “He’s an NHL skater, with an NHL shot,” said the other. “Not a great passer or playmaker. He’s a shooter who has to play in straight lines up the wall. He has the wheels, the size and the strength. But, when he gets lazy, you have to be on top of him.
I’m worried about a player who hasn’t been in shape for a long time and whose hockey sense is weak. These players rarely, if ever, find a level of consistency that deserves a coach’s trust.
I also believe in second chances and, as a journalist, I will abide by the verdict of the court when evaluating the person.
If Virtanen can change that opinion about his game on the ice, good for him.