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Dissecting Bo Horvat’s Winger Conundrum

Why have so many forwards struggled with Bo Horvat?

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Calgary Flames
Dec 29, 2018; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat (53) skates during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. 
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Is there anyone on the Canucks that’s been more hard done by then Bo Horvat?

Well, there are contenders. Jake Virtanen glued to Brandon Sutter, and Ben Hutton paired with Erik Gudbranson both come to mind.

Guess it could be worse for Horvat....if Guddy and Sutter ended up as his winger.

Currently, Horvat is 10th overall in the NHL in even-strength ice time per game among centermen. Here’s a look at the centermen above Horvat in the top ten, along with the number of wingers that have spent more than 50 even strength minutes with them this season.

9. Tyler Seguin: 7

8. Aleksander Barkov: 5

7. Sidney Crosby: 5

6. Mark Scheifele: 4

5. Leon Draisaitl: 7 (9 including McDavid/Nugent-Hopkins)

4. Nathan MacKinnon: 2 (wonder who those are...)

3. Anze Kopitar: 4

2. Dylan Larkin: 7

1. Connor McDavid: 8 (10 including Draisaitl/Nugent-Hopkins)

So now that we got that out of the way, want to take a guess at how many wingers have spent more than 50 minutes with Bo Horvat this season?

Here’s your hint: it’s more than any centerman on this list.

The answer is 12...12 Canucks wingers have spent more than 50 minutes alongside Horvat this season. It ranges from stars like Brock Boeser and projects like Nikolay Goldobin, to fourth-line plugs like Tim Schaller and guys who are no longer on the team like Brendan Leipsic.

So yes, it’s been a turbulent season for Horvat, which could be part of the season why he’s been in a slump over the past month. Horvat has only two goals in his last 17 games and while the slump is due to poor luck more than anything, the revolving door of wingers certainly hasn’t helped.

Even during the Canucks most recent road trip, Horvat started games with Markus Granlund, Josh Leivo, Tim Schaller and Nikolay Goldobin.

He really hasn’t had time to develop chemistry with any wingers and really, only one guy has stood out alongside Horvat.

This isn’t new news, but it’s Antoine Roussel.

A look inside the revolving door

Here’s a look at the 12 wingers who have spent more than 50 even-strength minutes with Horvat so far this season.

Horvat Teammates Time on Ice

So Horvat’s most common winger is in fact the Canucks best winger as well. This is good. I believe fans would also be happy to see that Virtanen has played the second-most minutes with Horvat, even though the two haven’t produced together.

Really though, it’s been an absolute smattering of wingers and no one has experienced any consistency playing beside Horvat. Travis Green is the opposite of Willie Desjardins in the sense that he has no problem blending his lines, but you could argue that a lack of consistent wingers for Horvat has stunted his production.

For comparison’s sake, MacKinnon has seen more than 700 minutes of even-strength ice time with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Even someone like Aleksander Barkov who’s seen his winger shuffled around a bit more, has spent more than 600 even-strength minutes with Evgeni Dadonov and more than 300 minutes with Jonathan Hubredeau.

Even though Horvat has been productive, his points-per-60 at even-strength has dipped to 1.58 this season, after registering 1.86 in 2016-17 and 1.87 last season.

Wingers Production with Horvat is Troubling

For whatever reason, only two of 12 eligible wingers have posted a positive scoring chance differential with Horvat.

Bo Horvat Scoring Chances For Teammates

According to this graph, calling up Sam Gagner and sticking him on Horvat’s wing seems like the answer to this winger conundrum. That’s why you don’t make judgments off of one statistic.

For one, the sample size with Gagner is small, and it’s heavily weighted to offensive zone starts. There’s also the fact that the Canucks went 1-5-1 with Gagner in the lineup, and only led for less than 60 minutes of hockey in those seven games. That means they were playing lots of hockey while training, which further skews the Gagner numbers.

It’s also troubling to see all of these wingers have posted below 26 scoring chances per-60 with Horvat. When looking at scoring chances by teams, 26 scoring chances is the cut-off between the top-half of the league and the bottom half.

So when 10 of 12 wingers are producing at a rate that’s in line with the bottom half of the league, that’s troubling, especially when it’s alongside the team’s second-line centre.

As much as fans want to see talented young players produce with Horvat, this graph gives Green reason to distrust that plan. Boeser, Goldobin, Virtanen and Baertschi are all bleeding scoring chances on the ice with Horvat.

Bo Horvat Goals For Teammates

Again, lots of below average on-ice production among this glut of wingers, even the most talented ones. This category is more flattering to Tyler Motte and Tim Schaller, but that can be explained by small sample sizes and high shooting percentages.

There’s really only one winger who stands out in this category, and it’s Antoine Roussel. He’s the only winger who’s looked consistently productive alongside Horvat this season.

Roussel’s playmaking ability has been clearly (and surprisingly) evident this season, with his ability to make plays on the rush really standing out. So far this season, Roussel has 12 primary assists at even-strength. His previous career-high was 9.

One of the other reasons why Roussel has proven that he should be a mainstay alongside Horvat: both wingers are beneficial to one another. Together, their numbers are outstanding but apart, they struggle. Their scoring chance differential apart is very similar (Roussel w/o Horvat: 44.1%, Horvat w/o Roussel: 43.7%), and so is their goals-for percentage (Roussel w/o Horvat: 42.9%, Horvat w/o Roussel: 42.2%).

It doesn’t look like a situation where Horvat is keeping Roussel afloat or vice versa. The Canucks have easily been a better team with these two on the ice together.

Bo Horvat Teammates PDO

The last chart I have to provide some context for this mess of wingers to play with Horvat. Roussel and Horvat have certainly been a bit lucky, but the underlying numbers do suggest that they drive possession together.

Two players that stand out to me after reading this chart: Josh Leivo and Nikolay Goldobin. Both players have an extremely low (and unlucky) on-ice shooting percentage while playing with Horvat. That’s especially true for Goldobin, who’s created the fourth-most scoring chances with Horvat among the 12 wingers, yet he has the worst on-ice shooting percentage.

Leivo’s shooting percentage is also low with Horvat, but that can be explained by the fact that the two haven’t created many chances together at all. What does look good for Leivo is that he hasn’t bled scoring chances with Horvat, unlike many of the other wingers on that list.

So, Who Plays With Bo?

Despite Green trying approximately 2659 combinations with Horvat this season, only one pairing has seemed to workout.

It’s clear that Roussel needs a longer look on Horvat’s line. My preference is to keep Roussel alongside Horvat and have Boeser flank them for an extended period. Even though the underlying numbers aren’t great for Horvat and Boeser, their numbers were much better last year, and the two have shown chemistry in the past.

As for the top line, I’d like to see “The Rush Line” of Goldobin, Elias Pettersson and Jake Virtanen get another shot together. The combo was short-lived with only 45 even-strength minutes together this season, despite posting a 100% goals-for differential (4 goals-for, 0 goals-against).

If the rush line starts to falter, I’d like to see Leivo get a shot with Pettersson as well. Of the three (Leivo, Goldy and Jake), Leivo has been the most productive without Pettersson. This also fails to mention Sven Baertschi, who also looked good with Pettersson. That gives Green reason to put the rush line together now and give them a run and if they don’t produce, Baertschi and Leivo are both candidates to move up the lineup.

However, it seems pretty evident that Pettersson is among the best players in the league, and it means he can drive a line on his own. Horvat, however, probably needs to build chemistry with his wingers, and Green should start trying to give him more consistent linemates.