VANCOUVER – In the past few months, Bo Horvat was asked as captain of the Vancouver Canucks to speak about teammates’ contracts and their impact on his own ability to re-sign, the effect of trade rumours on his family, fans throwing jerseys on the ice and booing the home team, every single loss, the death of Gino Odjick, the treatment of injured teammate Tanner Pearson, and how management handled the firing of former coach Bruce Boudreau.
Since he became captain of the Canucks in 2019 – after being groomed for years for the role by former captain Henrik Sedin and others – Horvat has also spoken about player safety, vaccine mandates, inclusiveness, the collective bargaining agreement, and the sexual assault of Kyle Beach and the NHL Players’ Association’s subsequent role in it.
And as far as anyone can recall, not once did he lose his composure, drop an F-bomb, display contempt or anger for a question or become visibly agitated at anything except poor play by himself or his team.
Horvat was as tremendous a statesman as he was a skatesman, and you need to be both if you’re going to captain the Canucks and become part of a lineage that includes Sedin, Markus Naslund, Trevor Linden and Stan Smyl.
When the Canucks traded Horvat Monday to the New York Islanders, sure, they lost a terrific hockey player.
Their return in the trade, however, was also excellent: middle-six winger Anthony Beauvillier, 20-year-old prospect Aatu Raty and a conditional first-round pick. All for a 27-year-old player who is on an expiring contract.
But what the Canucks can’t replace in the short-term is Horvat’s ability to withstand and deflect the daily media blast furnace, to reassure fans and satisfy reporters with his calm, measured responses to anything thrown at him. He was the most visible and most exposed player in the organization.
And for this, the Canucks have no replacement.
General manager Patrik Allvin, who has been in the market for only a year, suggested during his post-trade press conference on Monday that forward Elias Pettersson and defencemen Quinn Hughes are ready to take “over this team.”
On the ice, they may be. Both are young stars, still getting better and, importantly, hungry for responsibility. They want the game on their stick. But they are also 24 and 23 years old, respectively.
Each is bright and fascinating to talk to privately when cameras aren’t rolling. But besides their relative youth and life inexperience, they were also conditioned by communications staff during more than two years of pandemic-restricted availabilities to speak in front of the media hordes about once per week.
Are they really ready to do this every day, win or lose? Would they even want to?
“Definitely, it’s hard to move your captain away,” Allvin told reporters Monday evening. “It was definitely a hard conversation that I had with Jim (Rutherford, president) and (coach) Rick Tocchet. There is a lot of younger players, in particular Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, that have shown that they’re capable of being leaders of this team. So, we will sit down as a staff and talk about it here over the next couple of days.”
Is there a rush to decide how to replace Horvat as captain?
“Not a rush, but I do think that there will be a decision here, either way, what we come up with,” Allvin said. “But I do think that Pettersson and Quinn Hughes have shown that they’re capable of taking over this team.
“Playing in a Canadian market is definitely a challenge and more comes with it, too. But I do think a lot of younger players have grown into it. I think that every leader is different. You’re still going to, hopefully, perform on the ice, and that way lead this group moving forward more than, you know, talking off the ice.”
But someone has to talk. Rutherford announced when Bruce Boudreau was fired Jan. 22 that he would no longer be doing interviews, leaving big-picture messaging to Allvin and Tocchet. Tocchet just arrived, and Allvin has gone weeks between interviews this season.
Often, the messaging was left to Horvat.
The veteran player probably best suited by disposition and articulateness to replace Horvat as captain is Luke Schenn, which is ironic because he is another impending unrestricted free agent likely to be traded before the March 3 deadline.
“It’s a hard decision for different reasons,” Allvin said when asked about Schenn. “I have a lot of respect for Luke Schenn as a person and what he brings in terms of winning habits. I mean, he won two Cups (with Tampa) and he’s a very attractive player in what he brings here day to day. So, that’s definitely a hard one for us. But we also understand that he’s a UFA and we’ll see if there is another deal to be made or what the decision will be here over the next couple of weeks.”
Schenn could fetch another valuable asset for Allvin, who appears to have done just fine in the organization’s biggest in-season trade since Pavel Bure was sent to Florida by Brian Burke 24 years ago.
Allvin said Beauvillier, 25, should play among the Canucks’ top six forwards. Raty, who has outperformed his second-round draft position from 18 months ago, instantly becomes one of the organization’s top three or four prospects. And Allvin still has another player to chose with the first-round draft pick he gets from the Islanders this year or next.
“You can look at it that we got, actually, three first-rounders back here,” Allvin said of his trade haul.
Soon after he was hired by Rutherford last January to replace Jim Benning as GM, Allvin said the Canucks needed to change their culture. Trading their captain and longest-tenured player has the potential to start a seismic shift.
More changes are coming – in the next month and this summer.
“Again, we’re sitting in the standings in the bottom here, so we need to improve our team,” Allvin said. “As we said when we got in here (we’re), trying to get younger, and this might be starting (that). What is it, five weeks to the trading deadline? So, I would assume that more calls will come along here.”