Edmonton Oilers’ GM Ken Holland and his hockey operations staff are smart enough to know there’s going to a lot of blowback over their decision to bring former Vancouver Canucks forward Jake Virtanen into training camp on a PTO just two months after he was found not guilty of sexual assault.
That’s not a call I would’ve made, but I wouldn’t have brought in Evander Kane either and he, as far as we know, has proven his doubters wrong and been a terrific find. It should also be noted that Virtanen being here on a PTO is a no-risk bet by Holland, Jay Woodcroft and the Oilers. If he blows the doors off, sign him. If he doesn’t, don’t. It also needs to be repeated that, as noted earlier, Virtanen was found not guilty.
Misgivings about the accusations that put him in the headlines aside — and they are being voiced long and loud on social media today — I’m missing what Holland and Woodcroft see in Virtanen that makes this a worthwhile transaction given all the baggage that he brings. To use a term popular with fogies of my vintage, I don’t know if the juice is worth the squeeze.
Where does Virtanen, 26, who has 317 NHL games on his resume and spent 36 games with Moscow Spartak in the KHL last season, fit in the line-up Woodcroft is putting together? Does he fit? Is he a top-six forward? A bottom six guy? I don’t know, but we’ll find out soon enough. Camp opens Wednesday. Virtanen skated with some of the Oilers’ veterans at Rogers Place today.
WHAT HE SAID
“Everyone has their own opinion on everything,” Virtanen told assembled media after his skate. “I think that’s important. I think everyone should have their own opinion on everything. That’s why we live in a great country . . . I went through the process, and it was very hard. It felt very long for me in my heart. I was very stressed and I went through a lot of stuff, but at the end of the day, I did it the right way and I’m very happy I did it the right way.
“I want to come in and I want to be a player. I want to get back to my game and I want to be that power forward. I want to use my speed and my shot. I just want to work hard. That’s what I’m looking to do . . . it was obviously a very long process. I wanted to follow that process all the way through and do it the right way.”
Despite the recency and nature of Virtanen’s trial, and the reality that he’s been labelled in the past as a player who isn’t always in top condition, Virtanen said “quite a few teams” showed interest in him this off-season.
“Coming in here, the players are great,” he said. “There’s some of the best players in the world on this team. Very skilled, a very exciting team. I think it’s going to be a great year for this team. For me to make this team, I’ve just got to find a way on any line. I think bottom six is where I’m going to start. That’s where I’m going to have to really learn. I want to be a player there . . . you’ve just got to give your best effort every day.”
Easier said than done. From John Shannon on 630 CHED: “He’s got to put 100 per cent effort and focus into being a professional hockey player and that’s something that in his time in Vancouver bothered people,” he said. “He was laissez-faire at times. He wasn’t as responsible defensively as he should be. We know he can be physical. We know he can do lots of things. He’s a great skater. But where is his head space?”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Nothing anybody says is going to make people who are outraged that Virtanen is coming to camp with the Oilers change their minds. Some people on social media have gone as far as to say they won’t support the team because of the decision to bring him in and take a look. That’s their right. I’m sure they’re wondering what the hell Holland is thinking.
As for me, I’m wondering too because I just don’t see a player good enough to justify all the public backlash that has come with the decision to have him here.