Horvat’s mission: Draw into Canucks lineup

Horvat will get a chance to make an impression Friday as the Canucks hold their first on-ice workouts after on-ice testing Thursday at UBC and off-ice evalutions on Wednesday at Rogers Arena. (AP/Bill Kostroun)

The Vancouver Canucks valued Bo Horvat more than Cory Schneider.

Such was the splash of the NHL Entry Draft in June, when Canucks GM Mike Gillis traded his former No. 1 goalie to the draft-host New Jersey Devils in exchange for the ninth-overall pick, which he used to select Horvat.

It was a move that shocked Horvat, the fan bases of both teams, caused Roberto Luongo to black out, and slapped a mischievous grin on the face of the NHL’s commissioner.

“I think you’re gonna want to hear this,” Gary Bettman said, with the giddiness of a man about to announce his wife’s pregnancy at a family dinner.

And then the commish dropped the Schneider bomb that will forever be part of an 18-year-old centreman’s bio.

“It took quite a bit of time to sink in. It’s kind of all surreal, actually, the way it all happened,” says Horvat, who was ranked 15th among North American skaters by the Central Scouting Bureau entering the draft. “It’s an honour for them to think that highly of me, for them to trade up to get me like that. It’s extremely humbling to know they wanted me that bad, and now it’s up to me to prove they made the right choice.”

The Rodney, Ont., native was hot off his Ontario Hockey League playoffs MVP performance, where his league-best 16 goals in 21 postseason games had earned him the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award. He had met with the Canucks just once – an interview at the NHL scouting combine – and leading up to June 30, Horvat believed other clubs were more interested in the services of a six-foot, 206-pound beast up the middle.

“It was quiet. It was a shock to me and everyone when Cory Schneider got traded. They kept it very quiet — didn’t talk to me or anyone,” Horvat says. “There’s always teams you thought you could’ve went to or teams that talked to you more. But it worked out for me to get drafted by Vancouver.”

Since joining the team – the kid inked a three-year, $5.325-million entry-level deal this summer – Horvat had little contact with the Canucks during the summer and has yet to speak with new coach John Tortorella. His attendance at development camp marked his first time in “beautiful” Vancouver. Already, he says, it’s his favourite NHL city (good answer).

“(Alex) Burrows messaged me on Twitter, but other than that, they’re off doing their own thing during the summer, spending time with their families,” Horvat says of his hopeful future teammates.

After racking up 91 points in just two seasons with the London Knights, Horvat’s summer has been dedicated to his skating. Five days a week he worked both on and off the ice in an effort to become more explosive.

“Skating’s always been my weakness, but I’ve been working on quick feet to be that much quicker and have more to give on the ice,” he says of the change he made to his offseason training. “I’m working on my explosiveness and quick feet, trying to get a lot faster.”

Getting his photo snapped for his debut hockey card before training camp reminds him of his binder-filling days as a child, when he’d watch old tapes of Wayne Gretzky and seek out cardboard images of the Great One.

If matching Schneider in terms of value isn’t a lofty enough bar, Horvat is looking to shape his approach around Stanley Cup champion centres like Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews.

“Those are the kind of guys I want to model my game after. I take a lot of pride in my faceoffs. They have strong defensive games and can put up big numbers as well. They’re also unbelievable leaders, and that’s what I tried to be with my club team back in London,” Horvat says.

If the first thing observers point out about Horvat isn’t his size, it’s his finish around the net. But there’s another area of the ice he should benefit the team. The Canucks ranked 25th in faceoff success last season, winning just 47.6 per cent of their draws. Horvat glides into the faceoff circle with a Jay-Z mindset: I. Will. Not. Lose.

“Every game, I want to be the best faceoff guy there. I want to win every single draw. I take a great deal of pride in my faceoffs, and I enter the draw with that mentality: I’m not going to lose. I really enjoy them,” he says. “I’ve worked on it all my life. My dad used to drop pucks for me in the basement. My former coaches helped me out, too. (Knights assistant coach) Dylan Hunter was a huge help for me. He was a centre himself. I just work on it every practice and every chance I get. You kinda get in the rhythm of it and learn different techniques from different guys that way.”

Horvat gives a little credit to his God-given talent, saying it helps to have deft hand-eye coordination, but more important for winning faceoffs is repetition and practice.

“Some guys may not think draws are that important, but they’re one of the most important things in hockey,” he says. “At the end of the game, in the dying seconds when you have to win that draw to get possession and get the puck down the ice — those are the most important ones for me.”

With Canucks training camp set to begin next week, the most important draw now for Horvat is drawing into an official NHL roster.

“That’s my biggest goal: to crack that lineup and have a role on the team,” Horvat says. “If not, there’s always things I can work on, always things I can improve on. Get better, get stronger.”

He already shares the mission of the Canucks.

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