A succession plan for the Sedins has been the biggest concern for the Vancouver Canucks since they set out to retool in 2014 under GM Jim Benning. After all, it’s no easy task to try and replace the two best scorers in franchise history.
Specifically, they’ve been searching to find a legitimate first line centre that can anchor the team’s future offensive group.
The impressive progression of top prospect Elias Pettersson has assuaged some of these concerns, but he’s no guarantee as an NHL centre considering his wiry frame and inexperience playing up the middle against men.
Adam Gaudette is another promising centre prospect, though he projects as a middle-six forward.
That leaves us with Bo Horvat; who has smashed even the most optimistic expectations since being drafted 9th overall in 2013.
The 22-year-old centre broke out in 2016 with a 40 point campaign was followed up last year with an impressive 52 point season featuring an all-star appearance. Horvat’s linear point progression has continued this season where his prorated pace would have him scoring a career-high 30 goals and 60 points over 82 games.
The question to ask then is do the Canucks already have their long-term solution for a first line centre in Bo Horvat? Let’s dig deeper and find out.
One of the biggest uncertainties coming into this season was how Bo Horvat would handle being deployed as a top-line centre.
His offensive dry spell with just 7 assists in the last 17 games of last season coincided with teams finally starting to match their top defenders against Horvat’s line instead of the Sedins.
Whereas Horvat was deployed mostly as a middle-six forward last year, opposing teams have matched their best players against him this season.
The chart above tells us that Horvat has spent a higher proportion of his ice-time against the opposition’s top-six(as denoted by the blue bars from 1-6 on the top right exceeding the red line standard).
Meanwhile, the depth defenders section on the bottom right indicates that other teams are consistently matching their top 3 defensemen against Horvat.
Deployment isn’t the only thing that screams first line with Horvat— 18 goals and 36 points in 49 games leave him with a prorated scoring pace that would rank 19th best among NHL centres last season.
The caveat is that league-wide scoring is slightly up this year— Horvat’s 0.73 P/GP pace is just enough to crack the top 31 centres.
Things look even more encouraging when looking at his 5v5 primary points per hour.
Horvat more than doubles the other prominent centres on the Canucks with 1.75 primary points per hour this season. That mark ranks him 43rd among all NHL forwards, and 22nd among centres(minimum 600 mins). Mark Scheifele, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin, and Aleksander Barkov are just a few of the noteworthy centres that Horvat outpaces in this regard.
Furthermore, the Canucks are scoring 3.35 goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 play with Horvat deployed— good for 20th among centres.
All of these numbers suggest that Horvat is producing like a bonafide first line centre this season. Dive deeper though, and there are a couple of concerns about sustainability in relation to the small sample size.
Is Horvat’s Production Sustainable?
The graph above compares Horvat’s on-ice goals for rate since the 2015/16 season to the expected rate that hockey site Corsica’s model calculated. Corsica’s model takes factors such as shot locations, angles, and type into account to determine the quality of shots and chances created. From there, it calculates an estimated amount of goals scored assuming average conversion ability and goaltending.
Historically, the expected goals model has been pretty accurate compared to Horvat’s actual goals for rate, though there’s a significant discrepancy between the two this season. His expected rate of 2.35 sits a full goal below his actual pace.
Much of that has to do with inflated shooting percentages. Horvat’s individual conversion rate of 15.5% is bound to regress over time, whereas the team’s on-ice shooting percentage of 11.1% with Horvat deployed is more than 3% above the league average.
A counterpoint to consider is that the expected goals model doesn’t take into account finishing ability— a strength for Horvat and his most common linemates this season in Brock Boeser and Sven Baertschi.
Another factor to consider regarding sustainability is primary versus secondary points. Carolina Hurricanes’ analytics manager Eric Tulsky conducted a study in 2011 that theorized that secondary assists are largely dependent on luck and are thus unsustainable for players that aren’t pure playmakers.
Horvat’s collected just six secondary assists this season— indicating that he’s been driving play on the goals that he gets points on.
That assertion is further validated when looking at primary shot contribution data that The Athletic’s Corey Sznajder has tracked. A primary shot contribution is counted every time a player takes a direct shot on goal or makes a primary pass that leads to a shot.
Horvat has only been tracked for 120 minutes this season, but he holds up with some elite company.
This indicates that Horvat has excelled as the primary offensive catalyst for his line— creating shots on goal both individually and by setting up his teammates.
All this is to say that Horvat’s ability to drive play and be an offensive creator will likely attenuate a potential decline from shooting percentage normalization.
Bo Horvat has continued his linear development this season where he is now producing at the rate of a legitimate first line centre.
While Horvat is benefitting from high shooting percentages, other offensive metrics tell us that he’s still excelling at driving play as a catalyst— critical for sustenance and improvement moving forward.
The more pertinent question now is whether Horvat can develop into the upper echelon of first line centres— the type that can be relied upon as number ones for a cup contending team.
Horvat still strikes me as the type of player that would be the perfect number two centre to complement an elite scorer— similar to how Ryan Kesler complemented Henrik Sedin— though I wouldn’t want to be the one to put a ceiling on Horvat’s potential.
Certainly not after he’s proven every other doubter wrong.
*All stats courtesy Corsica and Natural Stattrick