Playing in Europe may be the best option for Bo Horvat this season

Hockey is in the air with training camps, prospect camps and exhibition games all well underway by now. With coaches starting to make cuts as rosters begin to resemble those we’re used to seeing when the games matter, fans naturally start looking to their favourite prospects and ask, “is this the year he finally joins the big club?” In the case of the Canucks, the main subject of chatter in this regard is Bo Horvat.

Horvat seems to be in a somewhat precarious situation. Because of his age and the agreement between the NHL and CHL he is limited to two options for this coming season: either play in the NHL (which he may simply not be ready to do, at least not in an effective manner) or go back to the OHL (a level which most believe he has already gleaned everything he can from).

Realistically, neither option may be the right fit for him at this point. But what if there were a 3rd option? What if Horvat could do what Nicklas Jensen did, and leave his OHL team to go play overseas in Europe?

The NHL-CHL Agreement

The simple version of the agreement is that any player who played for a CHL team when drafted must be returned to the CHL should he fail to make his NHL club’s roster (with the agreement becoming void once the player in question either turns 20 years old or has played in the CHL for 4 years). This basically means that, unless a player is of a uniquely high talent, he won’t be able to move on to the AHL for two seasons following his draft.

Fellow Canucks prospect Hunter Shinkaruk is one of those players with an early birthday, making him eligible to play in the AHL after his 4 years spent in the WHL. Anton Cederholm was drafted out of Europe and then was sent to the CHL, which means he theoretically could play in the AHL this year (though I doubt that will happen, simply because he has so much more work to do in refining his game). Evan McEneny has already completed his four years of CHL service but was returned to Kingston as an over-ager with the Canucks presumably feeling that Utica wouldn’t be his best course for development at this time.

So where does Horvat fit in with this agreement? Since he’s entering his 19 year-old / draft+2 season, he has only served three years in London and is therefore not old enough to play in the AHL this year. If he doesn’t make the Vancouver Canucks roster then he has to be returned to London as per the aforementioned agreement.  

In Vancouver, he’d imaginably be playing sparse fourth line minutes, and it’s fair to wonder whether that sort of usage would stunt his development. Were he to go back to London, the thought is that the quality of competition would be so low that he’d be progressing in a parallel manner rather than being forced to get better.

Which brings us to what Nicklas Jensen did only two seasons ago..

The Jensen Situation

Despite hockey fan’s short attention span Nicklas Jensen was at one time considered a very exciting prospect. The Oshawa Generals selected Jensen 8th overall in the 2010 CHL Import Draft, and he joined them for the ’10-’11 season. He wound up scoring 29 goals and 58 points in 61 games, nearly a 1.0 PPG effort. He scored 10 goals in 7 straight games and was tied for third longest scoring streak that season. 

By the end of the year he was ranked 5th in OHL rookie scoring. All of that was good enough to have him ranked as the 21st North American prospect, eventually falling to the Canucks at 29th overall (a consolation prize for the Stanley Cup Final Game 7 loss, if you will).

In Jensen’s draft+1 year he continued to have success and he did so starting the season by signing an Entry Level Contract (ELC) with the Vancouver Canucks. With Oshawa he only put up 58 points, the same as the year before, but he was heralded for having played a more defensive role. At the end of the season Jensen played 6 games with the Chicago Wolves, scoring 4 times.

Because of the NHL-CHL transfer agreement and the fact Jensen was drafted out of the OHL he would have had to return to Oshawa in ’12-’13 had he not made the Canucks. Jensen and his agent that summer informed the Generals that he was not intending to return to the Generals citing the lack of competition as a deciding factor. As a result they felt that it was better to go elsewhere to continue his development. 

Jensen wound up playing with AIK, one of the weaker teams in the Swedish Elite League (SEL) that year. Despite the lack of team success Jensen acquitted himself admirably playing in a men’s league against tougher competition, still managing to lead the team in goals, points and shots

All this European move required was the Vancouver Canucks to loan him for the year and it didn’t ultimately even winding up wiping a year off of his ELC. Oshawa ended up being on the losing side of the transaction, as they received nothing in the form of compensation.  

A cross-pond move doesn’t seem to happen very often but that’s not to say that Jensen’s the only player to have pulled it off in the recent past. Alex Khokhlachev spent a year in the KHL the very same season. 

Will It Work for Horvat?

The question we need to look at is if it wound up proving to have been worth it for Jensen and if this route would be worth it as a backup plan for Horvat should he not be in Vancouver this Fall. It’s rather difficult to say with any certainty, though, since it’s hard to predict how Jensen would be as a player now if he had stayed in the CHL for another year. Intuitively, it seems as if it was the better option for the then-19 year old. 

Similarly, the same route may behoove Horvat if there’s no place for him in Vancouver. He’d retain that ever-important year on his ELC, while presumably having the luxury of facing significantly stiffer competition than he would otherwise (similar to that of the AHL).

With that being said, it’s easy to foresee the reasons the Canucks wouldn’t allow such a move. The team has quite a bit invested in Horvat, and purely from a PR perspective sending its top prospect some 7000+ kilometers away where its fans could rarely ever see or him from him seems like a tough sell.

Ultimately, it’s a 3rd option worth considering at the very least. Especially since neither of the other two seem all that pragmatic.

  • Decent idea in theory but Horvat has never played a season on the bigger ice. You know how long it takes top European prospects to get used to NA game/ice? It would be just as difficult to go the other way. When is the last time a NA top 10 pick went to Europe for their age-19 season? Ever?

    It would be good skill development for Horvat though, as he is one of those players made for a smaller ice surface. Sweden/Russia would be great for his skating and his offensive and defensive stick-work. That being said, getting a top prospect to learn a whole different style of game for just one year may not be the best course of action.

    • Adding onto your point about the European ice surface…

      Horvat will have to learn how to play on the bigger ice surface in the course of a season, and then unlearn it immediately afterwards (assuming he only stays in Europe for a year, which we all hope so). Basically, he has to learn and unlearn the European game over the course of a season, and I don’t think that’s best for his development.

      • Agreed, and that’s basically what I was trying to say with my last sentence.

        And NMOO, that is a difficult thing to judge. The sample size probably isn’t big enough to draw any conclusions, and it would be difficult to seperate out all of the confounding factors.
        Case by case is just as difficult. Who is to say that Bolland wouldn’t have done even better had he taken a different development path?

          • This is exactly it. The notion that he’s outgrown the OHL is not supported by the evidence. What’s a better option — to have Horvat playing top line minutes, hopefully top PP unit, assume a leadership role etc. or have him scrape 8-10 min a game as a 4th liner? The same reason I’d not have Shinkaruk up here unless he had a top-six role that he hasn’t shown he’s ready for. Unless you have a top-line situation to put a top prospect into (i.e. Nichuskin) I don’t necessarily see this as a good developmental step. Kesler worked his way up the ladder but had significant time in the AHL to prep. All of this doesn’t hold true for generational talents like the Sedins but then that’s not what we’re talking about here.

          • andyg

            Kesler (or O’Reilly, Couturier) are theoretically the best case scenarios for a Horvat type of prospect.

            As you say, he’s not a generational talent or a guy who is going to have a top 6 spot in the NHL.

            Giving him the 9 games might make sense but there is no point in keeping him if he doesn’t impress just for the sake of having an ELC on the roster…

          • andyg

            The thing is, Hunter will probably play Horvat as the defensive centre in London again, and Horvat excelled in that role. I don’t see him getting more offensive opportunities, and he performed well (both offensively and defensively) in that role.

            I’m in the opinion of letting Horvat play as the Canucks 3rd line centre, as he has nothing left for him in the CHL (unless London puts him in Domi’s role last season).

  • While it is certainly an interesting topic, is there any data to support the idea that players like Horvat do not benefit from their final year in the CHL?

    Or is it simply something considered a hockey truism that has been repeated many times without being deconstructed…

    One could just as easily argue that Horvat should dominate junior hockey before moving up the ladder.

    Did it hurt Dave Bolland to spend his draft+2 year with London?

    Let Horvat prove he can be one of the best players in the CHL as an overager…

  • The transition back would be fine – he’s played on NA ice his whole life. Can’t see management go for it though – putting up some gaudy totals in the OHL probably sounds better to the majority of fans and is obviously the ‘safe’ option. Benning doesn’t strike me as a risk taker

    There’s a good chance he gets his 9 games at the start of the season though – how else will they sell the ‘youth/reset/we traded our best players for not much’ narrative.

  • This is a recurring theme: in any given year, the fans of any given team seem to think that one of their prospects is “too good for the CHL”. I recall this same debate with Cody Hodgson a few years ago after an impressive training camp. In hindsight it turned out that Hodgson had plenty of holes in his game, and I don’t think anyone would say he was too good for the CHL at age 19.

    I don’t buy the idea that Horvat has nothing to gain from Junior. He wasn’t the leading scorer on his team, and he didn’t take the world juniors by storm either. And didn’t he decline the captaincy in London last year? Maybe he should go back to London, take over the captaincy, and try to lead London to a more successful season while taking some time around Christmas to play a larger role in the WJC. It doesn’t sound like such an awful year of development to me.

  • andyg

    If he dose not make the nhl he obviously has more to learn. They say he is in the best shape of his life and looks it. That should show up this year in junior.

    We could have 3 or 4 players in the world juniors this year.

  • Spiel

    Bo could gain a lot by playing a big role in the world juniors.

    I think he has proven he can be a defensive force in junior, what about adding a bit more offense? There is some more to work on there.

  • Spiel

    after Bo swatted Patrick Marleau’s stick outthaway and blasted home the game winner on Tuesday night I’ve been certain of his staying with canucks. doubters?

  • Spiel

    I expect Canucks will keep Horvat around for the first eight regular season games to see if he can earn enough minutes as a checker and face-off specialist. He’s already won OHL awards as the best defensive forward and face-off ace.
    Otherwise the European option would be best for his development.

  • Spiel

    I think you are proposing a very good concept. Most analysts say that Horvat will be a very good 3rd line or possibly 2nd line center in the NHL in a few years. Rushing him into the league smacks of desparation. Yet London has nothing for him especially since the team there will want to use him in a defensive role. So Europe, although I think it would be wisest to go to Sweden, not Russia, which has problems in structure and political issues. Perhaps Gradin or Naslund could arrange something for the year as they have the contacts and it would mean they could keep an eye on him for the club. In soccer this system is common for top clubs to send younger players to play in leagues a step or two below. It is about time also that the current slavery system of the CHL be challenged, it is almost as bad as the NCAA and its treatment of athletes that make it money.

  • elvis15

    Horvat will probably make the team. Tanev has proven that a player can learn in the NHL and Coach Willie is a teacher. Under a coach like Torts the kid would be destroyed, but not under this regime.

    If Horvat can keep up the face offs and the solid defensive play then pencil him in at the 3rd center spot. Rivhardson is the 4th line center and shouldn’t be moved up. Horvat will learn and grow and hopefully by the end of the season will have made a big step.going back to Junior is a waste, unless he works on developing his offensive game?? I see this group seeing the positives with Horvat rather than negatives.

    What really is the key is having solid goaltending. If there was a Lack/Markstrom combo in net the Canucks would be forced to rely more on vets, but Miller/Lack will cover up mistakes of youth.

  • elvis15

    With the Jensen move to the SEL, the Canucks took advantage of a lapse in the NHL/SEL agreement where Jensen could play on loan but Oshawa didn’t have to be compensated. Surely there’s an agreement back in place, where not only would London have to be compensated but it could have an effect on Horvat’s ELC where it can’t slide. Surely both factors would make it prohibitive for a SEL team to want to pick him up.
    (already linked in the article as well)

    Regardless of the paperwork details, Jensen had played overseas and was familiar with the big ice as well so it wasn’t a big adjustment. Horvat doesn’t have that experience so I don’t think it’d make sense from that standpoint either.

  • elvis15

    it’s a tough call. maybe that big ice would be good for his skating. a bit more speed could only be a good thing for bo.

    it depends on the kid but not being able to get up 100% for yet another year in junior would be understandable. these are extremely formative years. a new country, league, experience would very likely keep his juices flowing and give him a depth of experience in hockey and life which could only be enriching, whether those benefits pay out right away or a bit down the road. humans are pretty delicate. the strict hockey-player-factory mentality can ignore some very important, if non-quantifiable, aspects of the whole enchilada.

    and it’s the perfect age for a backpacking trip though europe.

    or…4th-line centre on the canucks might not be a bad option either with some pk opportunities thrown in. it’s an opportunity. guys go down too. it’s just a fact of nhl life. there’s gonna be injuries. horvat could start at on the 4th line and if he plays well could be available for more minutes in a way he couldn’t down if he was down in junior. if it doesn’t work out he can get his minutes on the comets next year. the elc should be a non-starter. the canucks will be very happy to have to pay him a lot of money down the road. that would mean he was a good pick.

    the rules in place are for the benefit of the chl and are not designed with the players’ best interests at heart. so if you can circumvent them, in certain situations, then why not. bo has certainly paid his chl dues.

    yup, junior looks like option #3 imho.