No matter who the Vancouver Canucks selected with the sixth overall pick, there would be controversy and hand-wringing given the moves made by rookie general manager Jim Benning. Earlier in the day, the team had traded Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison and sowed seeds for a rebuild.
By the time it came to select sixth overall, the Canucks made as safe a pick as they could make, taking the big winger Jake Virtanen. The previous iteration of Canucks management was often criticized for selecting players from halfway around the world while missing out on men from their own backyard. Virtanen, born in nearby Abbotsford BC, grew up a Canucks fan and becomes the highest-selected BC-born player by Vancouver since Cam Neely.
That's a comparison you may hear thrown around a lot in the upcoming years. Neely, of course, blossomed into a Hall of Famer… with the Boston Bruins, after the Canucks dealt him for Barry Pederson before Neely became a star. For the last few years, Neely has worked with Benning, both as assistant general managers in Boston. Virtanen, like Neely, has size and a lot of offensive numbers in the Western Hockey League to prove it, but a faction of Canuck fans may sour at the safe player being taken while William Nylander, regarded as the best offensive player in the draft, was left on the board. Virtanen has also been dealing with a shoulder issue and won't be healthy in time for training camp, aiming towards a mid-October date for contact. It's certainly a bit of a problem when you consider that the team's other top prospect in the WHL, Hunter Shinkaruk, missed most of this past season due to a hip issue.
"I want to be 100 per cent healthy," said Virtanen on his return. "I'm not going to rush anything."
There are concerns, but right now the Canucks are in the midst of making public relations decisions, and selecting a local kid goes a long way towards helping mend the fences broken by former general manager Mike Gillis, who made several public relations blunders in his final year including trading both Roberto and Cory Schneider for limited immediate return. It was also rumoured the Canucks were willing to pay a hefty price to move up and select another BC-born, Sam Reinhart, at the No. 2 position, but ultimately the Florida Panthers retained the pick and took Aaron Ekblad.
To his credit, to, Virtanen is really entrenched in Vancouver hockey culture, paying less attention to the Canucks and more to the local Giants, citing Milan Lucic and Evander Kane as players that made him want to play major junior.
Injury-issues aside, the former WHL No. 1 bantam pick is an exciting prospect because of his size and work ethic. He scored 45 goals with Calgary this season alongside Greg Chase and Brady Brassart, but the offence disappeared in the playoffs as, ironically, it was Reinhart and the Kootenay Ice who racked up piles of goals in the six-game series.
With the 24th pick, acquired earlier in the day as part of the Ryan Kesler deal, the Canucks made Jared McCann, from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, their newest prospect. McCann, a strong competitor and a good defensive player, but ultimately with lacking offensive numbers this year, with 62 points in 64 OHL games.
We'll see if the Canucks can turn the tools into success on the ice. Coming off their first playoff miss in years, Vancouver is in need of a quick turnaround. It's inarguable that the players selected today are still a couple of seasons away from making an impact at the NHL level, so the west coast club may still have another year of bottoming out before the tools begin to mend those fences.