VANCOUVER — If you wagered at the end of last season that J.T. Miller would have a new contract and Bo Horvat wouldn’t when the Vancouver Canucks re-assembled in September, you’d have enough money to pay for the luggage your airline lost over the summer.
But there was Horvat, the career Canuck and team captain coming off a 31-goal season, trying to explain Monday why he doesn’t have a contract 10 days after management signed Miller to a seven-year, $56-million-US extension.
Miller’s contract had felt like a longshot – not because of his play or importance, but due to age and salary-cap pressure. Two years younger, at age 27, and with 572 games for the Canucks, Horvat was supposed to be the sure thing.
With training camp opening next week, the surest thing about Horvat is that his status beyond this final season on his current contract is going to be a massive talking point in Vancouver until it is resolved.
“I want to be a Vancouver Canuck,” Horvat, the good captain, reiterated Monday after his first pre-camp skate back with teammates. “I want to stay here and I love our group. My wife and I love the city. If I wanted to play for one team for my whole career, it would be the Vancouver Canucks. Obviously, it's a long process and we'll see where it goes.
“I can't let that kind of stuff bother me. I can't always have it hanging over my head. For me, I have to put my head down and be the best leader I can. I'm a Vancouver Canuck right now. I'm going to be a Vancouver Canuck for this full year, and. . . I'm going to try to do whatever I can to help this team win. And that's what my main focus is right now.”
Regardless his head is down or angled skyward, uncertainty will be hanging over Horvat, who is finishing a six-year contract that has averaged $5.5 million per season. That contract was signed five years ago on the opening day of the Canucks’ prospects tournament in Penticton, B.C.
That event involving the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames, resuscitated after a pandemic break, starts Friday in the South Okanagan.
There was regime change in Vancouver last season but the new general manager, Patrik Allvin, wants to re-sign Horvat, although he expressed neither optimism nor pessimism about that happening soon when questioned last week after the Miller signing.
Allvin did, however, identify Horvat among five “core” players he named and said the team’s depth at centre, with Miller, Horvat and Elias Pettersson, is one of its greatest strengths – a backbone to build on.
Over the last five seasons, Horvat leads the Canucks with 121 goals, including 49 on the power play, and has averaged 0.73 points-per-game despite drawing the heaviest defensive assignments under former head coach Travis Green and his successor, Bruce Boudreau.
Horvat has also won 54.9 percent of his face-offs and his 7,525 draws over the last five years is third in the National Hockey League. Only Ryan O’Reilly and Anze Kopitar have taken more face-offs.
Horvat should be less expensive to sign than Miller, who is 12th in NHL scoring since former GM Jim Benning acquired him three years ago, but could command a maximum eight-year term.
Signing Miller should not make it harder to sign Horvat. The Canucks have money for both players, and have always wanted to re-sign both.
They also need both. As we’ve said before, Miller may be the emotional heart of the Canucks, but Horvat remains their conscience.
The inflation in Horvat’s next contract – let’s say a $7-million AVV instead of $5.5 million – should be easily absorbed by a franchise that wants to keep its best players and believes that its window to win is just opening.
“I think the guys that we added, (Ilya) Mikheyev and (Andrei) Kuzmenko, these guys have high-end skill and speed and I like that we've added that speed up front,” Horvat said. “And, obviously, bringing Millsy back is huge. He's a big part of our group, offensively and defensively. . . and a great guy to have around the room. Millsy and I have a really good relationship and are great friends off the ice, so to have him here locked in is huge for us.”
Horvat said he is “100 per cent” recovered from the broken tibia he suffered in April, halting his season at 70 games and 52 points. He said his summer training was largely unchanged, even if his life was quite different after the spring arrival of baby Tulsa, a little sister for two-year-old Gunnar.
“Busy, real busy,” Horvat smiled. “It changes things. I thought one (child) was a lot and two is a whole different animal. Luckily, she's an angel. Her brother beats her up and she just keeps smiling. He's definitely a little jealous right now, but they've been great.”
He hopes they’ll grow old enough to see him play for the Canucks.