March 10 2014 10:54AM
If you've been following me on Twitter over the last few days, you'll have noticed that I haven't exactly been too complimentary of the Vancouver Canucks' top prospects. Taking it even a step further, I guess you could say that, overall, I hold a pretty negative view of the long-term future of the franchise.
It's not that I don't think that guys like Bo Horvat, Brenden Gaunce, and Hunter Shinkaruk can't or won't turn into useful NHL players; it's just that we need to establish what are reasonable expectations for these players moving forward. The fact of the matter is that aside from Hunter Shinkaruk, not a single prospect the Canucks have in the system has produced at a high enough level that you can say with any degree of confidence that they'll be a top-6 NHL forward.
The focus here will be on Bo Horvat since he was recently ranked as the #1 prospect in Vancouver's system, #12 in all of hockey by The Hockey News, and the 6th best prospect with no NHL experience by International Scouting Services and Buzzing the Net, but it also applies to Brenden Gaunce to a lesser degree. We'll look at some of the arguments in favour of Horvat, examine the validity of these arguments, and look at where NHL top-6 centres really come from. I suggest you get comfortable, because this is a pretty hefty read.
Bo Horvat: Man, Myth, Legend
First off, let's establish what the people are saying about Bo Horvat and what some of his perceived strengths are as a hockey player. From The Hockey News' Future Watch 2014:
"He'll always be linked to the draft-day trade for Cory Schneider to get New Jersey's first-round pick, but what put Horvat on the fast track was his excellent play at the WJC in all situations, along with his leadership. He's won't dazzle with speed, but has an uncanny ability to find his linemates. His two-way effectiveness could land him NHL duty next season in the third-line slot, where the Canucks have struggled to find a replacement for Manny Malhotra."
From International Scouting Services head scout Ross MacLean, courtesy of Buzzing The Net:
"The Canucks traded Corey Schneider to the New Jersey Devils to draft Horvat for a reason. Simply put, the 6-foot, 203-pounder is the total package. He plays a strong two-way game, is a wizard in the faceoff dot and possesses the offensive upside to slot in as a first or second-line centre in the NHL. Horvat, who has scored 26 goals and 66 points in 45 games this year, projects to develop into a gritty forward comparable to Vancouver’s own Ryan Kesler."
From Hockey's Future:
"Horvat’s bullish style of play garnered a lot of attention this year both in London and during the Knights’ run through the OHL playoffs. On a young team, Horvat stepped up and assumed a huge leadership responsibility, while showing his offensive bonafides. But what impresses observers most about Horvat is how hard he plays the game. He can score, but his truest strengths are defensive play and skill in the faceoff circle. Though he would be an ideal third-line centre in the NHL, Horvat could find himself on a team’s top six -- as the sandpaper on an offensively gifted line. He could be lethal in that role as he has the hands and nose for the net to take advantage of the dirty areas of the net."
The common theme through all of these articles is that Horvat is an excellent two-way player, and stellar defensively. Given this view of his skillset, it's not at all surprising that the most common defense of Horvat's poor production relative to what his ceiling is supposed to be (we'll touch on that more later) is that London Knights coach Dale Hunter utilizes Horvat in an extreme defensive specialist role; he takes a lot of defensive zone faceoffs and plays against the toughest competition.
There are a couple of problems with this argument. First of all, the CHL does not track any location stats, so it's not possible to determine if Horvat's deployment is really tangibly different than any other top CHL centre. Personally, I find it really difficult to believe that Horvat is being deployed in a Manny Malhotra-like role and starting more than a third of all his shifts in the defensive zone. It's more likely that Dale Hunter will throw him on the ice for occasional faceoff duty in place of Ryan Rupert, Mitchell Marner or Michael McCarron if Hunter doesn't totally trust those guys. That wouldn't really cut into Horvat's offensive time so much as it would be giving him an extra minute or two of TOI per game.
Second of all, there's the question of quality of competition. While I don't doubt the fact that Horvat plays against strong competition, this only matters if he faces competition that is disproportionately strong relative to his peers. The best method we currently have to estimate CHL QualComp is through estimating time on ice for each CHL player, then seeing which players were on the ice when a certain player was also on the ice for a goal. You can read a much more detailed breakdown here, courtesy of Eric Tulsky at Broad Street Hockey.
Tulsky also looked at the quality of competition for a lot of the top prospects from last year's draft, and here's what he had to say about Horvat's performance relative to Max Domi:
"These estimates are not precise enough for me to be confident that Horvat faced much tougher competition, but it almost certainly wasn't easier. Still, Domi significantly outscored Horvat, both overall and per minute. The difference in their performance is larger than would be explained away just by the difference in usage. A scout's eye might help identify skills that will translate to NHL success, but it seems clear that Domi had the superior season this year."
Also included in the write-up was a table ranking the estimated difficulty of competition of opposing forwards and defencemen. I've added a simple weighting (60% forwards, 40% defence since 60% of the players on the ice at 5v5 are forwards) and ranked the players presented in that table based on their estimated quality of competition:
If you believe that these rankings are reasonably accurate, undersized Portland Winterhawk Nic Petan, and a couple of guys who are already NHL top-6 centres in Nathan MacKinnon and Sean Monahan faced tougher competition than Horvat did, and still crushed it offensively. However, you still have to keep in mind that these are estimates, so saying that "Horvat faced easier competition" than them isn't entirely fair either.
The bottom line here is this: there is no evidence to suggest that Bo Horvat has faced uniquely difficult defensively-oriented deployments. He may play against tough competition, but nearly every top player in junior does. The fact still remains that his comparatively weak offensive production cannot be explained away by usage, and as we'll see in the next section, does not bode well if the Canucks are expecting him to be a top-6 NHL centre.
Where Do Top-6 Centres Come From?
When projecting a player as a "first or second-line centre in the NHL," it's most important to define and identify who these NHL first and second-line NHL centres actually are. Originally, I defined a legitimate NHL top-6 centre as a player who is:
1) listed as a C on NHL.com
2) in the top-60 among NHL C's in even-strength TOI per game
3) also in the top-60 NHL C's in scoring.
To make a fair comparison to the Canucks' top prospects, I then looked for guys that played in the CHL in their draft year, and either in the CHL, NHL or AHL in their draft+1 season. Doing this yielded 27 players, but still excluded some guys that were pretty clearly top-6 centres like Jason Spezza and Mike Richards. As a result, I had to expand my strict definition to a softer one that included guys that took a lot of their team's faceoffs, were in the top-6 of their team in TOI/game, and also were in the top-6 of their team in scoring.
This expanded list includes 44 forwards. At the top end, you get guys like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and John Tavares. At the bottom end of this sample, there are guys like Derrick Brassard, Tyler Johnson, Mathieu Perreault, and Steve Ott. The list also includes some top rookies like Nathan MacKinnon and Sean Monahan,
and other young guys such as Cody Hodgson. (Ed. note: do not ever mention that name ever again. Ever)
Once compiling this list of NHL top-6 centremen that played in the CHL during their draft year, I looked at their point production in both their draft and draft+1 seasons to see if there was a pattern. I have this running hypothesis that since the NHL is the best of the best, guys who will be good NHLers are usually dominant juniors in all aspects in the game, and this shows up in a ton of scoring relative to their peers. As such, you would expect the vast majority of guys who would become top-6 centres to score a ton when in junior. Here's the list of all ex-CHL top-6 centremen currently in the NHL sorted by points/game in their draft and draft+1 seasons:
A few important notes:
- For fun, I included Canucks prospects (and Zack Kassian) that were also wingers just to see where they stack up. Canucks are in bold and italic.
- Some players played in the NHL in their draft+1 season. To account for this, I did a reverse-NHL Equivalency (NHLE) estimate on their draft+1 NHL numbers to estimate what they would have scored in their CHL league. In most cases, this estimate wasn't out of line with what they'd already done in their CHL careers. In the cases that this provided a clearly inaccurate estimate, draft-1 and draft years were used instead.
- The asterisk denotes that a players' draft-1 and draft years were used because of a deficiency of good data for their draft+1 year. For Seguin and Thornton, this is because their draft+1 seasons were spent playing minimal minutes in the NHL, resulting in reverse-NHLE numbers that were far below what you would expect given their extremely prolific junior scoring rate. For Crosby, this is the opposite as a reverse-NHLE has him at like 7 points per game. For Shinkaruk, he's missed his draft+1 season due to injury. You would expect Thornton, Seguin and Shinkaruk to all be higher on this list had their draft+1 seasons been available.
The good news for Canucks fans is that there are players who have become top-6 centremen that have scored at a lower rate in the CHL than Bo Horvat has. Dallas' Cody Eakin (who was picked in the 3rd round, 85th overall by the Washington Capitals in 2009) is Horvat's closest comparable, and he looks like he'll contribute about 35 points and a positive Corsi this year while playing average difficulty minutes on a line with Ray Whitney and Alex Chiasson. Ryan O'Reilly is also an excellent player on an up-and-coming Avalanche team, and David Desharnais, Tyler Johnson, Brandon Dubinsky and Adam Henrique are all nice players too.
The bad news for Canucks fans is that the vast majority of guys who became top-6 NHL centremen were elite offensive performers in the CHL. Even with his stronger 2013-14 season, Bo Horvat has not been an elite offensive performer relative to the guys that have developed into top-6 centremen, and players who score at a rate similar to his at the same age still usually tend not to become regular NHL players at all:
On average, a player who went on to become an NHL top-6 centre after being drafted out of the CHL scored 1.5 pts/GP over their draft and draft+1 seasons. While this number is inflated a bit by the guys at the top of the list, Bo Horvat is nowhere close. His lack of offensive production can't be accounted for solely through his deployment in London, and still is a pretty serious red flag in terms of him becoming a cornerstone piece of this franchise.
It also has to be noted that for every Ryan O'Reilly drafted, there are multiple Ryan O'Marras - guys drafted for a solid two-way game that are point-per-game players in the CHL, but never amount to anything at the NHL level. This in part shows the folly of drafting for "the next player X" as in a lot of cases, "player X" was never supposed to become the first player X. Milan Lucic, for example, was never supposed to become anything more than a knuckle-chucker. He had 19 points in his draft year, before exploding for 68 the next season. When a team drafts a guy like Lucic, 99 times out of 100 he never develops the "can play hockey" dimension to his game.
Guys like O'Reilly and Dubinsky and Henrique and Eakin are the outliers, and you'll notice that they're also all guys taken in the second round or later (Desharnais and Johnson weren't even drafted at all, despite both eclipsing 115 points in a single season by the time their CHL careers ended). This is the thing with Horvat - although Ryan O'Reilly could be his ceiling, it's not likely that he reaches that level, just as it was unlikely for O'Reilly himself to reach that level. The NHL is an extremely skilled and brutally difficult league, and the majority of the time, guys that become good players were dominating players in junior.
Bo Horvat will, by all accounts, be an NHL player. He's a very good CHL'er and possesses a skill set that is fawned over by NHL GMs. When prognosticating these sorts of things, though, we need to evaluate what the most likely outcome is moving forward. For Horvat, the most likely route his career takes sees him topping out as a decent 3rd line C, scoring in the mid-40s in points just once or twice, and finishing his career having played for 4 or 5 different teams. Even then, he probably won't be ready to step into that 3rd line role and be effective for another 3-4 years after this one. Nothing he's done in junior screams "I'm ready" for full-time NHL duty, and most players spend significant time apprenticing in the AHL anyways.
There isn't really a reason to conclude that Horvat is better than "most players," so thrusting him into the spotlight and asking him to anchor the 3rd line on a team that wants to be going places isn't really a reasonable expectation at this point in his career.
All in all, Bo Horvat simply is not a player you build your future around, and is certainly not a player you draft with the 9th overall pick when there are players available that are clearly better bets to become impact pros - players like Valeri Nichushkin and Max Domi, and to a lesser extent guys like Josh Morrissey, Alex Wennberg, Nic Petan and Hunter Shinkaruk (thank god he fell to 24th). He's a guy you should feel comfortable taking in the 2nd or 3rd round, as coaches will always give him a second look since he does the defensive stuff well. He more than likely won't make an impact in the next few seasons though.
The Hockey News ranked Vancouver's prospects 28th out of 30 teams, and I tend to agree. Outside of Shinkaruk, there isn't really anyone who projects as an above-average offensive player at the NHL level in the system. Of course, this could change with another top-10 pick in this summer's entry draft, and could really change depending on what the return is for Ryan Kesler if he still wants to be moved in the increasingly probable event that John Tortorella is fired. It's a good idea to take a sober look at this though, and temper our expectations for the kids.