Horvat’s $33M deal sets comparable for future, and that should pay off for Canucks

The Canucks locked Bo Horvat up to a six-year, $33-million deal, and the best thing about the contract may be that it can set the pay structure for future restricted free agents.

The contracts the Edmonton Oilers handed out to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had the potential to change the landscape for restricted free agents. They stood to heighten the salaries for players coming off of their entry-level deals, and, in some cases, increase the price that’s paid for potential rather than prior production. And the expectation was that we could be on the cusp of seeing more than a few overpayments for RFAs in the coming months because of those two contracts.

That wasn’t quite the case with the Vancouver Canucks and Bo Horvat, however.

On Friday, after a summer-long negotiation, the Canucks announced they had locked up the 22-year-old Horvat to a six-year, $33-million contract, one carrying a cap hit of $5.5 million, and in many respects, the contract seems near perfect.

In terms of price tag, it’s hard to find many, if any, gripes with what Vancouver has handed Horvat. He was the Canucks’ scoring leader last season, putting up a career-best 20 goals and 52 points, and his cap hit falls almost perfectly in line with two of his closest offensive comparisons over the past three seasons, Jonathan Huberdeau and Jonathan Drouin. In fact, Horvat’s contract mirrors Drouin’s one-to-one — the Montreal Canadiens signed the 22-year-old to a six-year, $33-million deal of his own after acquiring him from the Tampa Bay Lightning in mid-June.

And the cap hit of the contract is easier to stomach when considering the potential Horvat has beyond the scoresheet. When it comes to pure offensive upside, Huberdeau and Drouin are likely to exceed Horvat, but the young Canucks center’s two-way upside is almost inarguably higher. Horvat is already relied upon in Vancouver as one of the team’s shutdown pivots a mere three years into his career and has become a fixture on the penalty kill, skating nearly two minutes per night while the Canucks are down a man. Beyond that, Horvat saw the fourth-highest quality of competition and, considering how poor Vancouver’s possession game was last season, he was a halfway decent play driver. 

There’s little doubt Horvat’s role will only increase as he develops further, too, and that goes for beyond the defensive aspects. The time is quickly approaching where Henrik Sedin, along with brother Daniel, will be saying goodbye to Vancouver and skating off into the sunset, and when that day comes the Canucks will have a clear absence of a top-line center. That’s a role that’s all but certain to go to Horvat, who has already seen his ice time leap from 12 minutes to 17 minutes to a career-high 18 minutes per night over the past three seasons. On a rebuilding Canucks club, there’s no reason why Horvat won’t see even more ice time this season, either. He has the potential to approach 20 minutes per game. And when Horvat does earn those top-line, No. 1 center minutes, the $5.5-million cap hit is more than palatable.

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But the importance of locking up Horvat at a reasonable rate on a long-term deal goes beyond the value he brings on the ice. What the signing can do, both now and in the future, is set the salary structure that the Canucks will follow when it comes to future RFAs.

While Horvat’s contract may not have any major impact on Vancouver’s negotiations with RFAs set to go to arbitration — of which the Canucks have four next off-season, including Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund — what his signing can do is provide those in Vancouver, and the Canucks’ front office, with an in-house comparable for players coming off of entry-level contracts. That’s going to be of utmost importance for Vancouver, too.

Over the next several seasons, especially upon the exit of the Sedins, the Canucks’ sole focus will be a youthful franchise, and eventually that is going to pay dividends in the form of some successful seasons. Several of the players who can be part of the Canucks’ rebirth, if you will, are already in town. Brock Boeser has mountains of potential, Troy Stecher impressed as a rookie rearguard and Thatcher Demko could be starring in goal in relatively short order. Then there’s Olli Juolevi, Elias Pettersson, Kole Lind and Jonathan Dahlen, each of whom could find their way to the big club within two to three seasons. 

However, when each of those players becomes a free agent for the first time, Horvat’s deal may make it so the Canucks have very little problem keeping the band together. Reason being is that it may be hard for any player entering their fourth season to justify earning more than Horvat, who should, if all goes according to Vancouver’s plan, be the franchise’s No. 1 center and cornerstone forward in short order. There will be players who flirt with a higher salary, of course. Boeser’s goal-scoring potential makes him a possibility. Demko’s ceiling as a starting netminder could put him in the running, too. But it could take an outright exceptional season — or seasons — for any of the aforementioned young guns to prove outright that he’s worth more than what the Canucks are paying Horvat.

That’s great news for Vancouver, too. While few project the Canucks to be a playoff team in the near future, there will eventually come a time when the seasons of Western Conference bottom-feeding gives way to perennial post-season contention. And should Vancouver’s success come at a time when Horvat’s deal allows the organization to create team-friendly cap outlook, the Canucks could prop open their window for a good number of years.

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