Canucks’ Bo Horvat learning to be a game-changer in Vancouver

David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire

While the rest of Canada’s NHL clubs send over the boards either a crew of elite young prospects or some of the game’s most valuable veterans, the Vancouver Canucks are still figuring out if they have anything from either of those camps.

The Sedin brothers are still in the mix, of course, as is recent acquisition Loui Eriksson, but none have been terribly impressive thus far this season.

But it seems one of the team’s lost prospects is finding his way back.

Bo Horvat — Vancouver’s ninth overall pick from 2013 — hasn’t been all that much of a game-changer in the past. However, the 21-year-old has started off strong this season, leading the Canucks with eight goals and 16 points through 23 games.

That scoring pace leaves Horvat on track for roughly 57 points by the season’s end, which would be a notable improvement over the career-best 40 points he posted in 2015-16, and likely a team-leading sum.

And looking at precisely how those 40 points came about, that end-of-season total doesn’t seem so farfetched.

Particularly because while Horvat posted only a modest point total in 2015-16, 30 of those 40 points came in the final 44 games of the campaign as he led the team in scoring through the season’s latter half. So his quick start this year isn’t as much a flash of talent as it as a continuation of what he started last January.

In fact, Horvat’s scoring pace over that final half of 2015-16 (0.68 points per game) falls fairly close to his current rate (0.70 points per game), meaning there’s a decently sized sample that suggests Horvat has figured out how to consistently make an impact at the NHL level.

And just in time, it seems, as the Canucks have been growing weary of their mediocre youth movement.

While Horvat hasn’t quite ventured into draft bust territory, it isn’t too difficult to find Canucks fans disappointed with the Ontario native’s progress up to this point. But there’s little to suggest Horvat isn’t right where he should be.

He’s progressed in each of his three seasons in the big leagues, improving his points per game pace from 0.37 in his rookie campaign to 0.49 last year and 0.70 so far in 2016-17. His goals per game pace has improved along a similar trajectory, as has his Corsi For percentage, which currently sits at 48.8 percent.

Horvat may not be lighting up the league like some of the game’s other young stars, but he’s taken steps each year — on one of the worst offensive clubs in the league, I might add — finding how to best utilize his size and skill in a division brimming with exceptional talent.

It isn’t as if the Canucks are lamenting missing out on a top-tier name picked after Horvat in 2013. Max Domi and Anthony Duclair came up after Horvat during his draft year, but the Canucks forward has posted the sixth-most points of all 2013 draftees to this point, bested only by players selected above him (Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan, Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm, and Seth Jones).

Horvat is a tough one to pin down. His tenure in the league thus far has been an odd mixture of expectations at times far too high and at times too low.

He came into the league as a top-10 pick, but in a draft year that didn’t look all that deep — and still doesn’t, now that the leading names have a few seasons under their belts. He’s been billed as a shutdown centre, even a fourth-liner at times, and yet he’s quickly proving he’s capable of much more.

It all comes down to his approach to the game. Horvat isn’t trying to be the team’s leading sniper or a Toews-esque defensive presence. He’s trying to be both. He’s trying to do it all.

“I know junior is a totally different league, but I did do it all there,” Horvat said to The Province last month. “I feel I’m the type of player that can do all that. It takes time to get on top of it all. You have to focus on the little things of each. You can’t totally focus on the power play. You have to focus on both. You have to take a little bit of each away, to do both well.”

Whether he can truly live up to that ambitious goal is a different conversation, but at this point, the Canucks have nothing to lose.

Right now they’re floundering, and the only sure thing on their roster — the timeless skill of Henrik and Daniel Sedin — clearly isn’t going to be around much longer.

So aside from hoping to score some plum draft picks over the next few years, all Vancouver can do, and perhaps all they need to do, is sit back and see if Horvat can put it all together as he wants to.

If he does, then the Canucks might just have the new face of the franchise that they’re desperately seeking. And if he doesn’t, they can at least count on the fact that he’s found a way to be a consistent contributor, which is more than can be said for some of the other more high profile names on the Canucks roster.

Canucks’ Bo Horvat learning to be a game-changer in Vancouver

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