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Jake Virtanen has earned a new nickname in camp: Showtime.
His teammates were razzing the first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks after Virtanen recorded six points in two exhibition games at Team Canada’s selection camp this weekend.
“The guys were just giving it to each other in the room, ‘Oh, you’re showtime’ and stuff like that,” said Virtanen with a smile. “(Teammate Morgan) Klimchuk was giving it to me after the game today.”
He’s making up for lost time after shoulder surgery sidelined him at Canada’s summer camp and caused him to miss the start of the Western Hockey League season with the Calgary Hitmen.
“That definitely hurt me a little bit,” said Virtanen. “Not participating in (summer camp) was tough and a little frustrating, but coming into this I knew I really had to show my stuff and especially in the Subway Series. That was huge for me because I had to show the coaching staff and the whole staff that I definitely wanted to be on this team and that I would do anything to be on it.”
Sadly for Klimchuk, he was one of the five players jettisoned by Canada in their first round of cuts late Sunday evening. The other forwards cut were Erie's Nick Baptiste and Belleville's Remi Elie. Defencemen Travis Sanheim of the Calgary Hitmen and Chris Bigras, who played on last year’s team, were the other cuts.
Bigras, who skates with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, was the first potential returning player cut since goaltender Leland Irving in 2007. Despite Bigras’ high profile, it wasn’t much of a surprise. The 19-year-old turned in a lacklustre performance in Malmo, Sweden, and didn’t get very much ice time. At camp he was overtaken by a deeper pool of defencemen this time around.
Still, the decision was a difficult one, said Team Canada head coach Benoit Groulx.
“When you play for this team and the next year you're cut, it's devastating for him," said Groulx, who was an assistant coach last year. “We understand that. It's tough for us, also. I was with him in Sweden last year.”
With Canada’s roster culled to 25 players, there are only three cuts left to make – two at forward and one on defence. As camp moves from Toronto to St. Catharines, Ont., on Monday, Virtanen, 18, should be a lock to make the team, especially considering he’s one of only three right-shooting forwards left in the camp.
In an earlier interview with Yahoo Sports during camp, Virtanen mentioned he felt he had picked up some bad habits once he returned to the Hitmen after his shoulder surgery. The biggest problem, he said, was “looping” around the puck – the lazy play instead of making the hard stops and starts to chase down pucks.
If looping was an issue, Virtanen seemed to have kicked the habit in exhibition.
“I’ve been working on that,” said Virtanen. “So far in these last two games I thought I played, personally, pretty well. I’ve been focusing on the stopping and starting, so that’s the main thing.”
Putting numbers on the board has boosted his confidence coming into a camp full of talented players, who in many cases are a year older. He’s also made a good impression on Team Canada’s coaching staff.
“Jake, like we saw on his goal, he can shoot the puck and you know what, he’s obviously had a very good weekend,” said Groulx.
The difficult part of camp for Virtanen has been trying to adapt to new linemates in every game. In Sunday’s game he flanked Nick Paul along with Elie. On Saturday he and left winger Nick Ritchie played on either side of Frederik Gauthier.
“Just trying to find chemistry with each guy,” said Virtanen, of the biggest challenge in camp. “Just talking and communicating out there with each guy on the ice … if you’re going to come here there are going to be great players and you’ve got to use them and use your teammates well.”
And with the way the native of Abbostford, B.C., has been playing in camp, it might be wise for teammates to start using Virtanen. There’s a good chance when the puck drops in the tournament on Dec. 26 against Slovakia, he’ll be there representing Canada.
“It would definitely be an honour,” said Virtanen. “It’s always my dream for me to play on the world junior team. You look a couple years back when they were winning gold, I know all of Canada was happy and I was happy.
“The goal is to definitely get back on track and get the gold medal here – I definitely want to be a part of that.”