Horvat, Canucks fuelled by 'step back' narrative surrounding team

Vancouver Canucks right wing Brock Boeser (6), centre Elias Pettersson (40) and centre Bo Horvat (53) take part in a team training camp in Vancouver, Tuesday, January 12, 2021. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER -- Bo Horvat doesn’t like what he’s hearing.

Apparently, the Vancouver Canucks not only took a step back after last season but moonwalked at double speed out of the NHL playoff picture.

It is as if Jacob Markstrom not only should have won the Vezina Trophy last year, but got bilked out of the Hart Trophy, too. And all the Canucks added to replace their goalie and a couple of defencemen were some of cans of Spam named Braden Holtby and Nate Schmidt.

No, Horvat doesn’t like this at all.

“Just hearing that fires me up,” the Canucks captain said. “I can't wait to start playing because I think we have a really good hockey team here with really good players, not only that we had here already but the guys that we brought in.

“We've got to hold ourselves to a higher standard this year. We can't be just good enough; we have to strive to be better than we were last year. I think we should be capable of making the playoffs and doing really well once we get there. We really have a tight-knit group and a lot of great hockey players, and we all want the same goal. Honestly, we can't wait to get the season going.”

The Canucks open the season Wednesday in Edmonton.

To be fair – and, well, honest -- Horvat hadn’t actually heard any of that stuff until we told him, and we may have embroidered the narrative a tad that is out there about the Canucks.

You do not have to do much sleuthing on your smartphone to see that the Canucks, after their breakthrough season last year, are almost universally picked to miss the playoffs in the all-Canadian North Division in 2021.

Some analytics models show them barely finishing ahead of the Ottawa Senators, who were the second-worst team in the NHL last season.

The Canucks’ official Vegas odds of returning to the Stanley Cup tournament this spring are roughly when-pigs-fly.

But, of course, these were the same odds they were given last season to make the playoffs, which they did for the first time since 2015. And once there, they won playoff rounds for the first time since 2011. And there was nothing fortuitous about that. They were seventh in the Western Conference and on a 93-point pace when the regular season was terminated in March, and earned their playoff wins against Minnesota and St. Louis.

But the narrative is important because although every player claims to be unconcerned about expectations outside his dressing room, the Canucks were partly fuelled by them last season.

Canucks centre Elias Pettersson and defenceman Quinn Hughes are budding superstars, fiercely driven. They are always looking to reload the chips on their shoulders.

“What fuels Petey and Hughsie is guys telling them they can't do something,” Horvat said. “Look out. If that gets in their mind, look out. I know it fuels me if somebody tells me I'm not going to be able to do something.”

Indeed, Horvat several years ago blasted through the modest offensive ceiling placed on him and, remarkably, has continued to improve his points rate in all six of his NHL seasons. He knows only one direction: forward, with authority, which the 25-year-old demonstrated in the playoffs by leading the Canucks with 10 goals in 17 games.

He doesn’t do “step back,” doesn’t accept the idea of regression at this stage of the Canucks’ evolution.

But this doesn’t mean Horvat is naive or ignorant. The captain keenly felt the loss in free agency last October of Markstrom, defencemen Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher, and rental forward Tyler Toffoli.

“It did take me awhile to get over that,” he said. “It still does. It was weird not seeing them at camp, especially Tanny and Marky after playing with them for six years. It's tough not having those guys in the room and on the ice with you, especially after the (playoff) bubble where you played together so hard and did whatever it took for one another.

“I wouldn't say I was angry, maybe a little bit confused. But at the end of the day, it's a business. Stuff like this is going to happen in hockey. And I think the guys we brought in are amazing. They are going to fill that void. I talked to Beags (teammate Jay Beagle) about Holtby and Schmidt and he raved about them.

“Talking to other people around the league, I knew they were great guys in the room. I wasn't worried about the chemistry; I knew they would fit in right away. If you have a tight-knit group and you're willing to go to battle for the guy next to you, willing to do whatever it takes for your team to win, I think that's just as important as having the best, skilled guys. If you're not willing to battle for each other, you're not going to win anyways. I think we have guys in the room who understand that.”

Horvat said he understands it better after last summer’s playoffs, which ended one game short of the conference final. The centre’s great consolation prize was returning home to London, Ont., to rejoin his wife Holly and baby Gunnar, who was just a week old when Horvat had to peel himself away from his family to spend two summer months chasing the Stanley Cup.

“Two months is a long time away from your newborn,” Horvat said. “I couldn't believe the change in him. It was crazy. I mean, I saw him on FaceTime every single day (during the playoffs), but to see him in person, hold him again, I just couldn't believe how much bigger he got, his facial expressions and everything like that. It was pretty emotional. I couldn't stop smiling.”

Horvat confirmed – as his dad, Tim, told Sportsnet in August – that he said he wants Gunnar to be just like Hughes.

“Yeah, I did say that actually,” he said. “Defencemen don't have to get on the forecheck. You just have to be smart back there and make a good pass, work the power play. I don't know if he's going have Quinn's features. He’s probably going to be like me: thick and with a big head.”

A leader.

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