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Virtanen demoted to final group of skaters to open Canucks camp

VICTORIA, B.C. – On the first day of the Vancouver Canucks’ training camp, fifth-year pro Jake Virtanen was banished from the grown-ups table.

Canucks coach Travis Green, whose tough-love approach to Virtanen helped the 2014 first-round draft pick during their season together in the minors, bumped the winger to the third and last group of skaters for Day 1 of the team’s training camp on Vancouver Island.

Green then made it clear to reporters that Virtanen’s deployment among minor-leaguers was due to the 23-year-old’s failure to meet off-season conditioning goals.

“Jake and I have had lots of conversations over the years,” Green explained. “We met a few times over the summer. We met at the end of the season. Jake wants to be better, as well, and progress as a player. I want him to take a step, even start to become a leader on the team.

“There are certain expectations he wanted to reach and I wanted him to reach, and we both agreed that there were goals that had to be met, and if he didn’t reach them he probably wouldn’t be with the first two groups on the first day of camp. I’m not going to get into it any more than that.”

While Brock Boeser’s coveted spot beside star centre Elias Pettersson was given to journeyman Reid Boucher in veteran-heavy Group 1, Virtanen skated Friday in Group 3 beside Utica Comets Carter Bancks and Wacey Hamilton and other members of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate. The sparse group was filled out by two players on tryouts and entry-level goalie Michael DiPietro.

Green insisted Virtanen is “a big part of our team, I think he’s a big part of future.” But his opening-day deployment, after a 15-goal season last year in which Virtanen made progress as a pro, was surprising.

“He’s a young, big body that gets around the ice well,” Green said. “He’s got to be able to do it on a nightly basis. (Out of) 82 games – Jake and I talked about it – we probably got 40 real good ones or something along those lines (last season). We want to get 80 or 70.”

Virtanen has made progress, albeit sporadically, since the Canucks selected him sixth overall in the 2014 draft. Conditioning has been a constant challenge for Virtanen, who is six-foot-one and naturally big. He was listed last season at 226 pounds.

Green, ironically or hypocritically, cautioned the media not to read too much into the training camp pairing sheets. But the coach’s public outing of Virtanen was unmistakable.

And it sure looks significant since the Canucks have 15 NHL forwards under contract – not including Boeser, the unsigned restricted free agent – and will likely be demoting at least a couple of them to Utica before Vancouver’s opening game in Edmonton on Oct. 2.

There are going to be losers at this training camp and during the pre-season.

“We talked to our group yesterday; you can’t wait,” Green said, speaking about his team and not Virtanen. “We don’t have time to wait for guys and they don’t have time not to get going right away. We have questions that need to be answered. I like our group, but we have to get down to our group, too.

“You’ve got to play your best; you really do.”

For the first time in memory, the Canucks did not provide practice lineups to the media at the start of training camp. Instead, the pairings were posted on the scoreboard only as each group went on the ice. It was as if the Canucks were trying to hide something. Or someone.

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