Horvat line juggling shows Canucks roster remains incomplete

Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko (35) and teammate Bo Horvat (53) celebrate their teams win following NHL hockey action against the Detroit Red Wings, in Vancouver on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CP)

VANCOUVER – If the Vancouver Canucks play Friday like they practised on Thursday, Bo Horvat will skate against the Washington Capitals with his fifth different combination of wingers this season – one for each goal he scored during his team’s first nine games.

It’s the NHL; things change by the shift.

But both Horvat and coach Travis Green were looking forward to less churn this season than last, when the Canucks’ workhorse centre was dared to play with 30 different sets of wingers and finished with 27 goals and 61 points despite the turnstiles on his flanks.

No wonder Green and general manager Jim Benning said before this season that the summer acquisitions of forwards J.T. Miller and Micheal Ferland were intended, partly, to provide stability for Horvat.

He hasn’t seen it.

A promising combination of Horvat, Tanner Pearson and Miller lasted just two games before Green moved Miller alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser to get the Canucks’ young scoring stars going.

Pearson, however, stayed with Horvat until the third period of Tuesday’s 5-2 win in Detroit. On Thursday, Pearson practised with third-line centre Brandon Sutter and winger Josh Leivo, while Ferland, the most transient piece of Green’s lineup so far, skated with Horvat and Jake Virtanen.

"It doesn’t really surprise me; it happened last year," Horvat said after Thursday’s workout at Rogers Arena. "Obviously, (Travis) is still trying to feel guys out early in the season. I think once we get rolling and guys get playing to their potential everywhere around the room, things will stick.

"I like to think I can play with anybody and make everybody around me better. That’s what I try to do every single night, no matter who I’m playing with."

At training camp last month, Horvat said "it would be great, I’m not going to lie" to finally have regular partners.

Pearson has been the one constant, Horvat’s winger since his trade to the Canucks from the Pittsburgh Penguins last February.

Pearson scored nine goals in 19 games with Horvat to end last year, and four games into this season his goal rate was up to 11 in 23. But Pearson is pointless in his last five games and Horvat’s line has struggled to generate five-on-five offence.

Of Horvat’s five goals – all of them scored on the successful four-game road trip that ended in Detroit and lifted the Canucks to 6-3-0 – three were on the power play, one from power-play pressure and one into an empty net.

Virtanen’s bank-shot goal against Detroit was his first of the season, and Ferland also has only one goal in nine games and logged a team-low 16:20 of total ice time the last two.

"I’m more worried about wins and losses and how that figures into the equation, and not worrying about whether Bo and Pearse play together and making sure that pair is perfect," Green told reporters. "I’m sure they’ll be together at different points in the year, and might even be together tomorrow night.

"Most guys in the league understand it’s not always just set in stone that you’re going to play with the same player all the time."

Yes, but wasn’t the idea to stop the insanity on Horvat’s wings? Green said at training camp: "I would love to have a little bit more of a set look for him."

On Thursday, the coach said: "Part of the equation was hopefully our lines would be solidified a little bit, and we’ve got two lines right now that have played together for quite a long time. If you look around at every team, they’re always switching some lines. Bo’s doing quite well right now with five goals in nine games playing with a couple of different players. I don’t think he’s going to complain and I’m not complaining."

Given the Canucks’ plus-11 goal differential and the team’s early success, it is understandable that Green might be a little touchy about line-combo questions. As he noted, Miller-Pettersson-Boeser have been together for seven games and counting – six of them wins – and the fourth-line of Tim Schaller-Jay Beagle-Tyler Motte has been as stable as it is effective.

But the fact that Horvat could be on his fifth set of wingers in Game 10 may be proof, despite an impressive October, that the overhauled roster is not finished. The team could use another winger who can score.

Interestingly, two skilled wingers the Canucks sent through waivers to the minors three and a half weeks ago, Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin, are torching the AHL.

"Obviously, I was kind of off to a slow start," Horvat said "But when you’re winning hockey games, it’s still fun, still enjoyable to play. That’s what you have to look at it. Winning is a lot more fun than getting points and losing."

• Second-year forward Adam Gaudette, who forced his way onto the Canucks’ roster with an outstanding September, was sent Thursday to the Utica Comets after being healthy scratched in six of nine games. His re-assignment leaves a roster spot open.

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