Why are the Oilers willing to take the chance with Jake Virtanen?

Penticton, British Columbia – Jake Virtanen. Evander Kane. Zach Cassian. Andrew Cogliano.

How do these four names end up in the same column, on the day Edmonton Oilers made headlines with Virtanen signing on to a professional trial?

Well, keep reading.

Virtanen arrived at this bootcamp experience after appearing in British Columbia’s Supreme Court in July on charges of sexual assault, stemming from a 2017 incident in Vancouver. Virtanen claimed in court that the meeting was consensual and that a jury of his colleagues found him not guilty on July 26.

“It was very hard to get through, and very difficult to get through,” Virtanen told media in Edmonton on Monday. “You learn a lot about yourself, who you are as a person. There is a lot of self-reflection about who you are. Your self-esteem… It was a long process.”

Virtanen still faces a civil lawsuit in this case, so the Oilers are risking an opportunity for a player who hasn’t put the allegations completely behind them. So why would the Oilers be willing to take a risk that far outweighs any reward when it comes to Virtanen, who was an NHL average player at best during his first seven pro seasons and 317 NHL games?

Anyone who has been watching this team knows the Oilers are no strangers to taking risks for a controversial player who has had to deal with legal issues away from the game.

Evander Kane signed with the Oilers midway through last season while still facing a lengthy lawsuit that was filed in July of 2016 by a Buffalo-area woman who accused the player of assaulting her. In April, the two sides reached a settlement while Kane was starring for his team.

But Kane, who signed a four-year contract with the Oilers last summer, is a front-line player with 30 goals. He is a player far superior to Virtanen in every category.

Virtanen is a top scorer with 10 goals and has never played a strong defensive match. He also struggled to stay in good shape. So he came to Edmonton as a third- or fourth-line player and would likely play in the lower league if he played at all.

This brings us to Zack Kassian.

Like Kassian, the first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabers who went to the Canucks in a swap for teammate Cody Hodgson, Virtanen was placed sixth overall by Vancouver in 2014. He’s always been seen through that lens, and he’s never quite lived up to Draft level.

“It should never have been so drafted,” said a British Columbia professional scout. “For me, you have to believe in the justice system, and give him a chance. But in terms of hockey, he needs a strong coach who stays with him all the time.”

Xian eventually landed in Edmonton as a bottom wing 6. Expectations were much lower, and he thrived for a time, extending his career and cementing his role as a deep runner.

Virtanen will enter the Edmonton market in the same way, behind Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi and possibly even Zach Hyman on the right. Expectations, and his potential hat, are as low as they can be.

“I have to find my way on any line,” Virtanen said. “Down 6 is where I’m going to start, and that’s where I have to learn. I want to be a player there – a 200ft player, and do my best every day.”

Virtanen talks about a good game. But is it real?

Only his play will answer that question, which brings us to Andrew Cogliano.

The Oilers drafted Cogliano 25th overall, probably a top 6 centreman. By the time he played three seasons in Edmonton, it became clear that Cogliano’s call was to be a quick penalty, bottom 6 winger.

Ultimately, Cogliano—a smart, hardworking, and physically fit player throughout his career—embraced the new role at Anaheim. So far, he’s played 1,140 matches – about 700 more than he could have played had he stuck to his guns for being a quarterback.

Here’s what two British Columbia scouts had to say about Virtanen, each with over 100 player views:

• “Good size, really good skate shoes. Someone said. “He’s always wanted to play a game of skill, but he’s more suited to the lower 6 role. He can help you if he has the right mindset. If he’s thinking, ‘I have another chance now. What can I do to help?’ He’s a third or fourth line player who needs to be replayed.” Evaluate who he is and how he does things.

“For me, it’s a good gamble for Edmonton…because it hasn’t cost them anything yet.”

• “He’s an NHL skater, with an NHL shot,” said the other. “Not a great arcade or playmaker. It’s a shooter that needs to be played in straight lines up and down a wall. He has the wheels, the size, and the power. But, when he gets lazy, you have to be with him.”

My thoughts?

I’m concerned about a player who has a history of lack of fitness, and whose hockey sensitivity is poor. Rarely will these players find a level of consistency that earns a coach’s trust.

I also believe in second chances, and as a journalist, I will abide by the judgment of the court when evaluating a person.

If Virtanen can change that opinion in his snowboard game, good for him.