In his sophomore NHL season Bo Horvat has been fed to the wolves.
As a result of a variety of injuries to teammate Brandon Sutter this season, the 20-year-old Vancouver Canucks centre has been pressed into some of the most difficult deployments in the sport. Though he’s acquitted himself well, more often than not, it’s a task that’s proven well beyond his years and pay grade.
Horvat is currently the NHL’s clubhouse leader for the ‘green jacket’, an ignominious and informal honour awarded to the player who finishes last in the league by the flawed plus/minus statistic. He’s been buried all year long under a barrage of shots and goals against.
That the Canucks’ prized young pivot has struggled isn’t altogether that surprising. He’s been charged, after all, with holding down a role as a 20-year-old that’s generally reserved for the most battle-tested forwards in hockey.
Last season we compared Bo Horvat’s performance with players who were deployed similarly, the NHL’s other everyday fourth-line centremen. When placed into a group with the likes of Paul Gaustad and Vernon Fiddler and Marcus Kruger, Horvat fared pretty well comparatively. His underlying results were middle of the road and he was quite handily the most productive offensive fourth-line centre in the league.
This season the cohort that Horvat should be grouped with is significantly more imposing. We’re talking about NHL centremen who play top-six minutes, see a significant defensive orientation to their deployment and spent a lot of time killing penalties. To identify this group, I sought out players who meet the following criteria:
1. The player must average at least 12:30 even-strength minutes per game and at least 1:45 shorthanded minutes per game.
2. The player must have appeared in a minimum of 50 games so far this season.
3. The player has to average at least 15 faceoffs taken per game.
4. The player must face the toughest or second toughest matchups among centremen on their team based on Behindthenet.ca’s Corsi-relative quality of competition metric.
5. The player must have a 5-on-5 offensive-zone start rate below 45 per cent.
Sorting NHL centremen by this criteria leaves us with eight names. Horvat is among them and the list also includes: Patrice Bergeron, Sean Couturier, Jordan Staal, Ryan Kesler, Brandon Dubinsky, David Backes and Travis Zajac.
Let’s get into how Horvat stacks up relative to the other NHL players who have faced similar deployments this season.
This is a group of players that are counted on to do some very heavy lifting against the best offensive players in hockey, so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is a solidly veteran group. Every player on the list, save for Horvat and Couturier, is older than 25.
The average age of these eight players is 28. Horvat is far and away the youngest player in the group.
If you’re an NHL centreman who can come out roughly even while starting regularly in your own end of the ice against the best offensive talent the world has to offer, you’re going to be very well paid.
Horvat is on the second year of his entry-level contract, which brings down the average cap-hit of this group of players rather significantly. If we include Kesler and Couturier’s extensions, which kick in next season, and remove Horvat from the sample, this group of players carries an average cap hit of 5.78 million.
When we write that the level of responsibility Horvat has been entrusted with this season is well above his pay grade, that’s just speaking factually.
Horvat plays the fewest 5-on-5 minutes per game of any player in this group, while David Backes plays the most. Horvat, however, ranks third among this group in short-handed ice-time per game, behind only Kesler and Zajac.
That Horvat is used more sparingly than the rest of this cohort reflects Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins’ intense commitment to rolling four lines in balanced fashion. I’d also suggest that it reflects the Canucks’ organizational awareness that they’ve put their most important young player in a tough spot at too young an age.
It’s rare for a young player to excel between the hashmarks, but Horvat has proven himself in the circle at the NHL level.
Three of the eight players on this list have won better than 57 per cent of all faceoffs taken this season. As a group they average better than 53 per cent on draws. Horvat’s 50.1 percent win rate ranks him seventh in this group of eight (ahead of only Couturier).
It’s probably worth noting that Horvat has taken the third most defensive-zone draws of the players in this group, behind only Bergeron and Kesler. He ranks last in the group, however, when you isolate their faceoff winning percentage to the defensive end.
Horvat ranks last among this group of otherwise elite two-way centremen by both total points and 5-on-5 scoring rate.
Considering his unlucky percentages, his age, the difficulty of his deployment and how sparingly he’s used on the power play, Horvat’s production this season is actually rather auspicious – even if he doesn’t stack up favourably in comparison with this group. It’s clear, to my eyes at least, that at this point in his NHL career Horvat’s offensive game is more developed than his defence.
What’s most impressive about this group of players is that the vast majority of their teams actually control the run of play with them on the ice in spite of their difficult assignments. Of this group of eight only two players are underwater by shot-attempt differential (Zajac and Horvat) and only two are in the red by team-relative shot-attempt differential (Backes and Horvat).
Anyway you slice it, Horvat’s underlying results have been the worst of this group. He ranks eighth by raw Corsi for percentage and eighth by team relative Corsi for percentage.
In his second NHL season Horvat has been deployed as if he were a bluechip two-way centreman. And at the age of 20, that’s been a big ask. He hasn’t performed up to the very high standard set by similarly deployed players leaguewide.
The Canucks knew this going in, which is partly why they traded for Sutter this past offseason. As the best laid plans of mice and men are wont to do, the club’s efforts to protect Horvat from the tough deployments he’s faced didn’t quite work out.
If Sutter can retrieve the durability he’s demonstrated through most of his career next season that would be a huge help for Vancouver. It would allow the club to deploy Horvat in a more suitable fashion, which is crucial for both the club’s on-ice hopes and likely for his development.