For a team that finished second-last in the NHL overall standings a year ago, the Vancouver Canucks’ early season success under coach Travis Green, which sees them hold a wild-card spot more than one-third of the way through the campaign, has been one of the bigger surprises of the campaign. But the worst-case scenario, the one that could send the Canucks toppling down the standings, appears to have come to pass.
The Canucks announced on Thursday that top-line center Bo Horvat had suffered a foot fracture and would miss “multiple weeks,” and, for the time being, set the longest possible absence at six weeks with the possibility for a firmer timeline once the 22-year-old visits with a specialist. Be it four weeks, five weeks, six weeks or more, though, losing Horvat for any extended amount of time puts Vancouver in a serious bind.
As it stands, there isn’t a Canucks center who is leaned on even close to as much as Horvat, who is far and away the ice time leader of the forward group. Among Vancouver’s forwards, Horvat’s ice time ranks first at even strength, fourth on the power play and fifth when the Canucks are down a man. His 18:37 average across 28 outings this season puts him more than a minute-and-a-half up on the next-most utilized Vancouver forward, Brandon Sutter, who, as luck would have it, also happens to be on the shelf and will be out for at least another week.
It’s not just about eating minutes for the Canucks, however. Horvat has quickly usurped Daniel and Henrik Sedin to become, in the minds of many, Vancouver’s most effective forward on a nightly basis. The Sedins, of course, are still the Sedins, supremely gifted offensive players with playmaking ability in spades, but Horvat has become a veritable jack of all trades. His 10 goals and 20 points put him second in team scoring in both categories, and he’s put up points on the power play, shorthanded and fired home two game-winning goals this season. That’s not to mention he’s excellent in the faceoff circle, faces the third-highest quality of competition on the Canucks and is often matched up against the opposition’s top unit.
“I don’t think we’re going to just replace Bo Horvat,” Green told reporters Thursday. “Teams deal with injuries and we’re going to have to deal with it. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for other guys on the team.”
The question, however, is which “other guys” can really step in and be effective in the role?
The most obvious answer would have undoubtedly been Sutter, but the upper-body injury that has already sidelined the veteran center for the past six games. And another week on the shelf means that Sutter — who, it should be noted, is second in ice time among Canucks forwards — is in line to miss at least another four outings. So, the next man up then becomes one of Henrik Sedin, Markus Granlund or Sam Gagner. Obviously, plans can change and change quickly, but using the Canucks’ Thursday night 4-1 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers as somewhat of a barometer, it appears Granlund is first up to try his hand.
Suffice to say, though, that Granlund, nor Sedin or Gagner, are long-term solutions for a potentially long-term problem. Granlund brings with him a certain defensive acumen and he’s a reliable penalty killer, but his four goals and five points aren’t nearly enough to replace Horvat’s production. At the same rate, to ask Sedin to replace Horvat would be to ask a 37-year-old veteran who ranks ninth in overall ice time and 10th in even-strength ice time to step into a top-line role. It can be done in a pinch, but over a month-plus stretch, the results could be shaky, at best. As for Gagner, the Canucks need more out of him in any way they can get it, as they’ve yet to really see good return on the three-year, $9.45-million investment they made on him in the off-season. The expectation was much more than three goals and 11 points in 29 games, and for all his offensive talent, he’s not exactly a defensive specialist.
That there’s no suitable replacement and that the Canucks are now thinner than ever down the middle hasn’t been lost on GM Jim Benning, either, as Horvat’s injury has already prompted the Vancouver to make one move.
Early Friday morning, the Canucks announced a deal to acquire 27-year-old center Nic Dowd from the divisional rival Los Angeles Kings in exchange for 22-year-old rearguard Jordan Subban. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Subban had yet to play a big-league game for the Canucks, and in landing Dowd the Canucks bring in a pivot with 91 games of NHL experience under his belt. Truth be told, though, Dowd isn’t and won’t be much more than a bottom-six piece on a team that is without its first-line center. In Los Angeles over the past three seasons, Dowd’s average ice time has been 11:34 and he scored six goals and 23 points across his tenure with the Kings. This season, his ice time has dipped down to 7:57 and he’s managed just one point, an assist. A true replacement for a team lacking center depth, Dowd is not.
The reality for the Canucks now is that they have to manage to stay afloat by committee and hope against hope that Sutter comes back prepared to take on heavy minutes in a shutdown role while Horvat heals his own ailment. In the meantime, they’ll have to hope the likes of Brock Boeser and Sven Baertschi continue to produce while potentially seeing an uptick from Granlund, Gagner and both Sedins. If all that can happen before Horvat returns, maybe the Canucks can stay in the wild-card race and continue to be one of the league’s biggest surprises. If it can’t, though, in six weeks’ time Vancouver could find themselves snowed under and trying again to dig out from the depths of the Western Conference basement.
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