The Vancouver Canucks have been a wonderful story so far this season. They were projected to be a bottom feeder, but halfway through the season, here they are, hanging in there on the periphery of a playoff spot. We’ll see how they do over the next 10 days or so without Elias Petterson in the lineup – going into tonight’s game at home they haven’t scored a goal in almost two games without the NHL’s best rookie – but it’s clear the rebuild in Vancouver has been accelerated. They likely won’t make the playoffs, but they’re fun to watch and they’re selling hope.
Much of that has had to do with Pettersson’s brilliance. But a lot of credit for this has to do with Vancouver’s No. 2 center, Bo Horvat, who at the age of 23 is on the cusp of becoming an elite two-way center in the NHL. Horvat is on pace to finish the season with 66 points, which would be by far a career high. The improved offense, in his mind at least, is coming because he’s even more focused on playing a responsible game. And that’s saying something for a player who has long had a sterling reputation on the defensive side of the puck.
“Being below the puck and committing to playing well defensively is what is driving my offense right now,” Horvat said. “I think the biggest thing for me this summer was being better in front of the net and having better hands. Just trying to grow my game in every aspect I can.”
Horvat has progressed every year he has been in the NHL. He missed 18 games last season with a broken foot and had the equivalent of a 56-point season had he played the full 82-game schedule. The long-term prospect of having a 1-2 punch at center of Pettersson and Horvat is an encouraging one for the Canucks, who traded goalie Cory Schneider to get the chance to take him ninth overall in 2013. And he’s under contract for four more years and what could develop into a very team-friendly cap hit of $5.5 million if Horvat continues his upward trajectory.
For Canucks coach Travis Green, the shoulder injury to Brandon Sutter that forced him to miss 26 games was actually a positive for Horvat, who found himself going nose-to-nose with the top centers in the game. “I think it really helped him to realize where his game needs to be for us to have success down the road,” Green said.
Horvat has always been defensively conscious, which makes his theory about improved defense leading to more offense a little surprising. It’s not as though Horvat has just emerged as a defensive player. In fact, the opposite has been true. Many young players come into the NHL with almost no clue about how to play defensively at an elite level and improve as they adjust. Horvat has always had an excellent grasp of playing defense and is developing more offensively as his career progresses.
“I think as a young guy, he worried a little bit about trying to score,” Green said. “Getting ‘Petey’ has probably taken some of that off his plate. And when Sutter got hurt, he was going head-to-head against the (Connor) McDavids, the (Anze) Kopitars. We have a lot of good centermen in our division. And we talked to him about that. ‘You’re shutting them down tonight, that’s your job and we hope you’re on the plus side.’ He’s had to pay attention even more to the details where last year Sutter was playing against those guys and Bo was a little bit more of an offensive player.”
One thing we do know this season is that Bo knows faceoffs. Going into Wednesday night’s games, he had taken almost 100 more faceoffs than Aleksander Barkov and over 100 more than Jonathan Toews and Kopitar, players who are all highly lauded for their two-way play. With 584 wins, he also leads the league in that category and is winning draws at a respectable 52.4 percent rate.
There were a good number of people who thought Horvat would take over from Henrik Sedin as the Canucks captain. But instead they decided to go with four alternates in Horvat, Sutter, Alexander Edler and Chris Tanev for the time being. Prevailing sentiment is that it is only a matter of time before Horvat has the ‘C’ stitched to his chest. And given his commitment to playing a two-way game, the Canucks could do a lot worse than Horvat as their on-ice leader.