Virtanen primed for big season

Aaron Vickers2014 Draft Center, Features

Jake Virtanen could tell you exactly where he’s ranked. But the Calgary Hitmen forward can’t be bothered.

A consensus top-10 pick heading into his draft-eligible season, Virtanen isn’t worried about where he’s ranked in October. Instead, he’s more interested in where he’ll be selected in the 2014 NHL Draft come June.

“I see [the rankings],” admitted Virtanen, who had 16 goals and 34 points in 62 games as a rookie last season. “They’re not a big deal for me right now. We’re still nine months away from the draft. It’s a long year. A lot of things can change. Injuries can happen to different players.”

He inherited his unassuming attitude from his friend and Hitmen teammate Greg Chase.

“He was pretty much the same [way last year],” Virtanen said. “He was drafted and I watched him pretty close, actually. Greg and I are pretty good friends. He had a great experience. He was really humble about it last year. He’s a great player and he was pretty much guaranteed to get drafted. It was good to watch him get drafted as a teammate.”

Chase, who was drafted in the seventh round (188th overall) in 2013, made it a point to give his 6-foot-1, 210-pound teammate some advice on how to deal with the daily draft pressure.

“He just says, ‘Be humble and just go with it. Go with the flow,’” Virtanen said. “You don’t want to worry about it too much. I think the scouts will find I’ll do well if I just play my game.”

The laid-back attitude may seem like the 17-year-old is content to rest on his laurels.

However, Virtanen’s goals are anything but passive.

The former first overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft has set his sights on climbing higher than the ninth-place position he holds in Future Considerations’ October ranking for the 2014 NHL Draft.

“I want to stay there,” he said. “I don’t want to get moved by anyone else. All you can do is try to move yourself up. That’s what I want to do, and I want to improve myself and prove to everyone around me that I’m a good player.”

With draft pressure circling Virtanen, Hitmen head coach Mike Williamson has made it a point to keep his young winger focused on the task in front of him and not on the one in Philadelphia in June.

But Williamson, who has been a head coach in the WHL for a dozen years, indicated that keeping players on point during their draft year can be challenging.

“I think every player’s different,” he said. “You’re not going to completely block it out. They have to embrace it and realize there is pressure there and there are people watching, and they have to perform to a certain level. Some players handle that better than others.

“Sometimes, players have a tendency to try to do too much or get away from what they’re asked to do within the confines of the team structure. That’s a natural thing and you have to make sure you’re keeping them on task.”

If anything, Williamson has already accomplished that with the former Bantam standout with the Abbotsford Hawks.

Instead of talking about the destination, Virtanen described his plan for getting there.

And, he said, it starts with a successful season for the Hitmen.

“It’s obviously going to be a big year,” Virtanen stated. “I’m going to try to focus on my game and take it game-by-game. There’s nothing else other than hockey going out there, playing with the guys and winning games. I’m going to focus on Hitmen hockey right now and winning a championship this year.”