According to reports earlier this week, the Anaheim Ducks were said to be pursuing a potential trade for Jake Virtanen of the Vancouver Canucks. Thomas Drance, who primarily writes about the Canucks for the Athletic, has suggested that the potential trade isn’t likely to get over the line in the near future, which has also been confirmed by Elliotte Friedman via Twitter. However, it’s still worth considering the pros and cons of the idea.
Firstly, would Virtanen make the Anaheim Ducks a better team at what they’re trying to achieve? For me, I may have to suggest that the answer is a maybe. The deeper more nuanced question, however, might be “what are the Ducks trying to achieve?”
Consider that, over the past two seasons, the Ducks have either acquired or extended the following players: Sonny Milano, Adam Henrique, Danton Heinen and David Backes. Combined these players take up ~18% of the Ducks salary cap and it can be argued that each of these players can help the Ducks win games.
Yet, each of these players has spent a significant volume of time sitting on the bench or in the taxi squad. It’s also worth mentioning that the Ducks traded two of their better players last season (Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase) in order to acquire these players.
General Manager Bob Murray has made some comments over time that have suggested to the fans that the Anaheim Ducks are trying to win hockey games. It’s a laudable approach for a business and hockey team, yet as the saying goes “actions speak louder than words.” Not many teams would have the intestinal fortitude to drop players who easily sit within their top 6 forward group and who have clearly made a positive impact, and then allude to being a better team without them.
Perhaps the lack of a media presence in Anaheim allows the Ducks to get away with these shenanigans. However, we as fans should really stop pretending to believe any of the media that comes out of that franchise. Quite frankly it’s insulting.
Thus, if we change tack, ignore the commentary about winning, and presume that the Ducks are actively attempting to lose games then perhaps we can make sense of the Ducks’ most recent moves to date. Would acquiring Virtanen help with that agenda?
Subtraction by Subtraction
Straight up, at face value, Virtanen is not a particularly good hockey player. The former sixth-overall draft selection (2014) is now in his 6th NHL season with one 30-point year to his name. It’s hard to argue with Vancouver wanting to move on from him, particularly given his underwhelming production this season (1 goal / 1 point in 19 games, at time of writing).
The Ducks, or rather Bob Murray, on the other hand, could be interested in his raw physical tools. Virtanen can certainly skate, he’s got the body to throw around and be physical, and sometimes he even has a half-decent release. With that said, if he hasn’t put it together now, at 24-years-of-age, it seems unlikely that he will. That may just be fine for the Ducks.
Both, the Athletics Rick Dwaliwal and Sportsnet’s Nick Alberga have suggested a potential framework for the Virtanen trade centering around Dan Heinen. In some way’s there is a little symmetry here, as Heinen originally came to the Ducks as part of a series of trades that saw the former top-10 draft selection and power forward Nick Ritchie leave the team. Acquiring another former top-10 draft selection and power forward in exchange for him completes the circle of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, that Anaheim Ducks fans are so used to Bob Murray doing.
How Does Virtanen fit into the Anaheim Ducks Plans?
At first blush, the trade looks like a train wreck. There are few that would argue that Virtanen’s chart looks better than Heinen’s, and those that would are simply incorrect. Heinen, despite his dwindling points totals from year to year, has been a solid, though unspectacular, player for the Anaheim Ducks in his short time with the team. His 10 points (6-goals) in 26 games since the trade somewhat belies the on-ice role he’s been given at times.
When accounting for time-on-ice, Heinen’s scoring sits 4th among Ducks forwards at 1.44 points per 60 minutes of play. Additionally, when considering a per-60 rate and comparing to the other forwards on the team, his individual expected goals rank 3rd (0.8), individual shot attempts rank 5th (14.98), individual scoring chances rank 3rd (9.5), individual high-danger chances rank 4th (3.74), and he creates rebounds with the 4th most frequency among forwards who have played at least five games (0.86). It’s also worth noting that he’s ranked 2nd on the team for takeaways (2.02) and 3rd for blocked shots (4.03).
Virtanen’s lack of scoring prowess has been discussed above, however, the Anaheim Ducks already have Maxime Comtois, and to a lesser extent Max Jones, covering the “scoring” power forward role. What Bob Murray could perhaps see himself needing in the future is a big body to play in the bottom-6. Perhaps Virtanen is better suited to that role.
As per the Heinen numbers above, the following data is rated on a per-60 minute basis and includes only the forwards playing for the Canucks who have played in excess of five games. Virtanen ranks 5th on the Canucks for shots on net (8.5), which is a weak point for the Anaheim Ducks.
Virtanen’s individual expected goals rate is a little lower than Heinen’s (0.72) ranking 7th on his team, and his individual high-danger chances are far lower (2.83) ranking him 11th on his team. Should the Ducks be trying to lose in a sneaky manner, this combination of “high” shot totals with a lower expected goal scoring could provide a foil for the average fan, though it’s worth noting that Virtanen’s individual scoring chances are quite high at 9.45 (2nd on team).
Where Virtanen may come to the fore, and fit in with the Anaheim Ducks future game plan, is that his rush attempts (0.63, 4th on team) and his ability to create rebounds (1.57, 1st on team) are far superior to Heinen’s and somewhat fit in with other Ducks forwards like Troy Terry and Max Jones who are strong in transition. Even Sonny Milano’s greatest strength is to rely upon his speed to push the pace with odd-man rush attempts. None of these players is a prolific scorer, yet each can contribute strongly to a bottom-6 that can transition the puck from defense to offense.
On this note, it is worth considering that Terry has been frequently dropped from the team since the trade deadline last season, thus Virtanen could provide some value in “replacing” Terry’s ability in this aspect of the game. Nonetheless, there appears to be a clear strategy in acquiring players who excel in this aspect of the game.
On the defensive end, Virtanen leads his team in takeaways (3.15) and can provide a physical presence as a prolific hitter (13.23, 3rd on team). Additionally, it’s worth noting that Virtanen ranks 6th for fewest shot attempts against (57.63), has the 3rd fewest scoring chances against him (27.4), and has the lowest goals against (1.89) on the team among forwards.
The Wrap Up
It’s hard to imagine that any Jake Virtanen trade would be straight up for Dan Heinen, so the question would be what else is in the mix. The Canucks would rightfully be fighting to get some extra assets from the Ducks as they’d be essentially giving up a former early first-rounder. The Ducks on the other hand would be arguing that Virtanen is a scorer who can’t score and thus is worth whatever an equivalent 4th liner is worth.
From the record, Nicolas Deslauriers cost the Ducks a single 4th round draft pick and he costs somewhat less in salary than Virtanen. Additionally, the Ducks would theoretically be giving up the more productive player and would be taking an additional year in salary back as Virtanen is signed until the end of next season. Which team blinks first will be interesting to watch, yet it would appear at face value that this is the reason for any hold-up.
Should the trade go ahead though, without considering additional pieces, does Virtanen have a place on the Ducks roster? I would have to say that yes he does. Carter Rowney typically plays the right-wing for the Ducks in the bottom-6 and regardless of his injury status (currently on injured reserve), is getting on in age. It is also worth mentioning that it is in vogue in the NHL to play all four lines somewhat equally, and the Ducks current head coach takes that to some extremes.
Virtanen would provide the Anaheim Ducks with a younger version of Rowney to play upon the 4th line. He hits prolifically and can transition the puck forward, which is a key component of defensive play in the modern NHL. The Ducks lost some of that ability to transition the puck when they traded Kase, and bringing some back on that fourth line can improve an aspect of their play that suffers when Rowney is on the ice.
They lost some of their ability to create rebounds and subsequent havoc around the net when they traded Ritchie, and neither Rowney who he’d replace on the ice nor Heinen who he’d be traded for are particularly good at that part of the game. For a team that relies almost entirely on gritty goals, this missing variable hamstrings their offensive game to an absurd degree.
Finally, Bob Murray likes a physical team that is big on hitting. Rowney is one of the team’s most prolific hitters and Virtanen can seemingly replace that variable with some ease. Similarly, Rowney is one of the stronger players at creating turnovers and Virtanen can replace that ability to separate the opposition player from the puck. As the Ducks transition into a younger group from next season on, perhaps Murray would appreciate Virtanen throwing hands, which he has done before.
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Taken together, I think that Virtanen can provide a solid presence among the bottom-6 forwards if he’s given a role that focuses on support. Former high draft picks such as Andrew Cogliano and Valeri Nichushkin have transitioned from that supposed scoring role into fantastic defensive players. It took a change of scenery and team, for them to be given a role better suited to their skills.
The Anaheim Ducks could easily be hoping for a similar transition from Virtanen, and if that is the case, I think there is a good chance they can make it happen if trade talks heat back up again. It will certainly take an adjustment, but it took Cogliano a season to do that when he arrived in Anaheim. In this lost season, the Ducks have that time.
Conversely, if the Ducks are acquiring him to be a scorer, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Though given the moves the Ducks have made to reduce their offensive potency, it seems most likely that any real attempt at improving the Ducks scoring output will be put back another year. This season, by actions if not the words, is about the Ducks rebuilding and gaining draft assets.
Virtanen helps them achieve that now and possibly helps them move forward in the future. Nonetheless, the proposed trade piece, Danton Heinen is seemingly out of favor, so turning one discard into a piece they can use is certainly better than wasting it away on the bench.
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