Buzzing The Net

NHL draft tracker: Jake Virtanen, Calgary Hitmen

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Jake Virtanen led all 17-year-olds in the WHL with 45 goals (Larry MacDougal, CP)

Jake Virtanen set the tone for his draft season early last summer.

No doubt by design, as first overall picks in their respective leagues, the Calgary Flames left wing and Barrie Colts standout Aaron Ekblad were placed on opposite teams at the selection camp for Canada's summer under-18 team. What ensued was the two 17-year-olds alternating Plexiglass-wobbling checks on each other that might have turned up on the Richter scale.

"We were battling for a spot and you got to do what you got to do," recalls Virtanen, who netted 45 goals for Calgary during his sophomre season. "Aaron and I, we're good buddies and I had to give him a bit of a hard time. He came up to me after we had both made the team. He told me in the camp he hated me and now he had to be my best friend.

"There's some guys who kind of let up on friends and I kind of think there's no friends on the ice."

Virtanen notes that he still needs to become nimble ("I need to work on my stops and starts"), but the Abbotsford, B.C., native has displayed excellent potential as a power winger who can finish in tight and also get his nose dirty. The 6-foot-1, 208-pounder was third in Hitmen scoring with 71 points. He's also managed to fit into Calgary coach Mike Williamson's physical style.

"Coming in as a 16-year-old, my midget team wasn't the strongest and we kind of did whatever we wanted," says Virtanen, who has dual Finnish-Canadian citizenship. "And then playing for Mike it was different because it was so structured. I love it, to be honest, he has a great plan for us, we're winning games here, overall I love playing for Mike.

"This year, my role has filled out a lot more," Virtanen adds. "There is a lot more responsibility and leadership, needing to know what's going on and even being able to show the younger guys."

Virtanen has seldom had to look far to find an older high NHL draft pick to measure himself against. Ottawa Senators first-rounder Curtis Lazar, a highly touted two-way forward, not only plays for division rival Edmonton but the two also played their minor hockey in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, going head-to-head every other season because of their age difference.

Meantime, Virtanen, who is NHL Central Scouting's ninth-ranked North American skater, is hopeful he can become a more versatile player by the end of the Hitmen's season.

"I want work on being really good in the defensive zone and PK. Penalty killing is one of the things my team takes pride in."

1. Which NHL player do you see as an on-ice role model?

"I kind of model myself after [the New York Rangers'] Rick Nash. We're kind of identical players. He likes to take the puck to the net. I think I'm a little more physical than that, I like to throw the body around."

2. Who's been the toughest forward to battle with the walls and in the corners?

"There's a couple guys in our league. There's Chandler Stephenson on Regina, he's one of the strongest guys I've played against. He can score goals and it's hard to play against him. Obviously, there's Curtis, I play quite a bit against him, we get line-matched quite a bit. He's strong and powerful.

"Curtis and I were a year apart so we played against each other every two years in peewee and bantam He was still dominant back then. It's been pretty fun to see how guys have developed."

3. When you think of people other than family who have been important to you along the way, who comes to mind?

"One of my coaches back home, Brad Bowen. He's been my coach since I was about four or five and has a done a lot for me. I go to his hockey academy when I'm back home. He used to be a scout for the [New York] Islanders and he's a good guy."

4. Who is a teammate you're really grateful to for helping you adapt to the WHL?

"There's been a lot of guys, but one who sort of stands out is Victor Rask [now in the Carolina Hurricanes organization]. I got to look up to him and he was a star player. I asked him how things work and he was my stall mate as well so I always asked him for advice and about what I could do better."

5. In your fantasy, what Olympic sport would you compete in?

"Probably snowboarding. Not so much now, but when I was younger in B.C. I liked going to Cypress, Mt. Seymour and Whistler, up in the mountains. Growing up that was probably my second-favourite thing to do."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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