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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Canucks Army Year in Review: Bo Horvat

In a season where Brock Boeser’s emergence stole the limelight, it was Bo Horvat who quietly continued making strides as the team’s number one centre.

Coming into training camp, the big question surrounding Horvat was if incoming head coach Travis Green would give him the reins as the team’s primary offensive weapon. The 23-year-old may have eclipsed the Sedins’ point production in 2016/17, but the Twins were still the leaders of the pack when looking at ice-time and quality of competition.

All that changed once Green took over.

The increase in ice-time went hand in hand with tougher opposition matchups.

Horvat’s deployment last season appeared more the part of a middle-six centre than a first-line pivot. The visuals perhaps undersell the concern over quality of competition given that last year’s data is skewed by the final 15-20 games of the season.

That closing stretch was accompanied by changes to the way that teams matched up against the Canucks. Opposing teams recognized the threat of the Horvat line and started deploying their top pair and checking lines with more regularity against them. Speculation that forewarned a performance dip with tougher competition rang true, with the former 9th overall pick unable to find the back of the net once in the final 17 games of the season.

This season, Horvat was able to overcome those contextual challenges and continue his linear point progression.

Fans have been ambivalent about proponents of Horvat’s standing as a legitimate first-line centre and at first glance their concerns hold water.

Bo finished outside the top-31 full-time centres league-wide when looking at points per game, although it’s fair to note he was one spot away at 32nd.

Refine that criteria to look at primary points and Horvat’s position among the top-31 centres becomes clearer.

Chart courtesy Jeremy Davis

Take it a step further to look at primary points per hour and Horvat slides into the top 20 with 1.62.

A big reason for this stellar primary point production has been Horvat’s marked improvement in the way he’s utilized his teammates. Brock Boeser’s addition has been an obvious boon for the top-line, but Horvat’s shown development in his playmaking ability regardless.

The pertinent category in this instance is shot assists per hour and while the sample size for this year’s data is small, it’s supported to an extent with the eye test. Horvat’s definitely put an emphasis on better leveraging his teammates, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Horvat’s an elite puck distributor like the sample might suggest.

Perhaps most telling of Horvat’s impact is his team-leading goals above replacement mark. That 13.3 goals added per 82 games average is good enough to slot into the top 20 among all NHL centres.

The GAR metric is a composite figure that tries to take into account performance in all facets of the game. Horvat’s spot on this list speaks volumes towards his overall impact on the team.

An underrated factor that the GAR calculation brought to light was Horvat’s excellent penalty differential. He was able to draw 11 penalties throughout the season while taking just two himself. 

For those skeptical about GAR’s legitimacy, look no further than the club’s record with and without Horvat in the lineup as a measuring stick with regards to his importance to the team.

The team’s prodigious performance discrepancy makes sense from a logical standpoint when considering the structure that’s lost without Horvat in the lineup. The team relies on him to centre the first-line, play on the first power-play unit and kill penalties. When a player of that calibre goes down, it has a trickle-down effect on the rest of his teammates.

At even-strength, the Sedins were vaulted back onto the top-line and while they rose to the occasion, scoring close to a point per game in Horvat’s absence, the team won’t have that luxury next season. The substantive difference was felt with the second-line centre position– one that was taken on by a part-time centre in Sam Gagner. Soon thereafter Brandon Sutter went down with an injury as well and suddenly Nic Dowd was playing up to 17 minutes a night.

Horvat not only shelters his teammates from unfavourable deployment but also has the most positive effect on their ability to control possession among Canucks’ forwards not named Sedin.

For all of Horvat’s offensive contributions, there remain glaring deficiencies in his defensive game. The team continues to operate at a net deficit with regards to controlling shot attempts while also surrendering nearly half a goal per hour extra with Horvat on the ice.

The 23-year-old creates a solvent differential on the scoresheet simply by outscoring his defensive issues. Horvat’s on-ice goals for rate of 3.21 per hour ranks him 49rd among NHL forwards and 20th among centres(minimum 400 minutes TOI) serves as a case in point.

Where Horvat did take a step forward defensively was with his play shorthanded. As I outlined in an analysis piece at the start of this season, the Canucks hemorrhaged unblocked shot attempts, goals, and high danger scoring chances at a disproportionately high rate with Horvat deployed in 2016/17. Simply put, he was one of the worst penalty killers in the league that year.

Horvat has improved significantly on those paltry results, moving the needle firmly towards respectability.

By all accounts, Horvat has elevated his game to a new level we’ve never seen before. It’s fair to speculate about the sustainability of his success, with a deeper look into the matter revealing that luck has been a factor.

The most obvious sign of possible regression is the 10.2% five-on-five shooting clip with Horvat on the ice. That shooting percentage definitely comes into play when looking at his high on-ice goals for rate.

Horvat’s on-ice goals rate has traditionally remained pretty consistent relative to his expected mark. That trend was transcended this season where the Canucks produced four-fifths of a goal extra compared to the expected total with Horvat on the ice.

It’s fair to wonder how much linemate Brock Boeser may have skewed those results. The biggest flaw with Corsica’s expected goals model is that it cannot account for a player’s shooting ability– undoubtedly Boeser’s greatest asset.

Even if the on-ice shooting percentage does decline, it likely becomes balanced out if Horvat spends a full season with a healthy Brock Boeser.

Conclusion

Underrated in the hype for Brock Boeser has been the progress that Bo Horvat made in his first season as the team’s number one centre. Horvat’s scoring pace increased for a fourth consecutive season, turning out to 56 points if prorated over a full season. This came in spite of the tougher matchups he ended up facing.

Horvat’s even-strength defensive profile leaves something to be desired, though strides in his own zone were made shorthanded. All in all, it was a solid season of development– one that delivered results you might expect out of a fringe first-line centre.

      • apr

        The new horse is Horvat is how much better Drouin. Not dead yet, not even close. That said, its a little annoying to hear that Horvat is performing like a first line center, as it sounds like all first liners are the same. They are not. Crosby and Derek Stepan are first line centers. They are not the same.

  • Fred-65

    The enormity of seeing a team without the Sedins is starting to hit home. Life for all the Canuck forwards is going to be tougher next season and that includes Horvat. Youth sounds like a good strategy but I suspect the less used comment …. experience counts is ,more apt.

    • Killer Marmot

      Hockey is a two-way game. The Sedins put up respectable offense, but were porous on defense — this despite having easier match ups and a ton of offensive-zone starts.

      The organization should not focus on replacing the Sedins offense, but on finding replacements with better goal differential — a perfectly doable aim.

      • argoleas

        Bingo. Replacing Sedins is about two things: EV and PP. Here I worry much less about PP, especially with Pettersson there, but even if they deploy, for example, Eriksson in slot and Goldy on half-wall, they should perform well. Boeser is the key.

        As for EV, they will just have to weather the storm, and be patient for Pettersson and Gaudette to get acclimatized. I expect they will do so faster than people fear. But otherwise, at least try to play well defensively.

        The ultimate key, however, is still the D-corps and goaltending. If Marky picks up where he left off, that by itself will have a huuuuuuge positive effect.

      • Freud

        The Sedin’s expected goals numbers were 52% and 51%. Best on the team.

        Boeser and Horvat were 47.5% and 48.5%.

        Hockey is a two-way game. The Sedins played both ways in a fashion that gave the team the best chance at success when they were on the ice. Research shows zone starts and matchups have negligible effects on possession and expected goals for numbers.

        Not sure how you come to the conclusion they were the problem or are easily replaced, unless you’re looking at only rudimentary numbers like plus/minus.

        Their actual goal differential can be explained by a quick look at their 97.5 PDO.

        • TD

          The Sedins put up good expected numbers as they were good at keeping the puck when they got it, but neither could shoot at an elite level. In the end though, results matter not expected results. How did the Sedins actually do?

        • Defenceman Factory

          so you are saying that there expected goal differential was positive but their actual goal differential was negative. Zone starts and match-ups don’t matter so the reason reality didn’t match the analytics was what, just bad luck? Or does the expected goals stat include power play time?

        • Killer Marmot

          Research shows zone starts and matchups have negligible effects on possession and expected goals for numbers.

          Actually, it doesn’t. Research shows that zone starts don’t have much effect on the league as a whole because most players are fairly well balanced between offensive and defensive zone starts. But for those rare situations where the difference in zone starts is extreme, the effect is significant.

          https://puckplusplus.com/2015/01/20/how-much-do-zone-starts-matter-part-ii-a-lot-on-their-own-not-that-much-in-aggregate/

          And Canucks players had the most extreme zone start percentages in the entire league. The Sedins, for example, had almost three times more offensive starts than defensive ones at even strength. This was more than any other player with more than 11 games.

        • Killer Marmot

          The Sedin’s expected goals numbers were 52% and 51%. Best on the team.

          So you’re claiming the Sedins were unlucky? When a player has an even-strength goal differential of -16, that beggars belief.

  • He’s like Mark Schiefele. Horvat has a little less offensive skill but is more well-rounded (e.g. handles twice as much PK TOI, has a FO% that is at least 6% better). Horvat is the kind of core player that one needs to support skilled players and go deep in the playoffs.

  • wojohowitz

    The comparison I always make to Horvat is Jonathan Toews who has played 11 season in Chicago (ten as captain) and his best season point wise is 76. The Canucks don`t need Horvat to be a 100 point center and if the had four Horvats playing center the team would be a perennial contender.

  • Bo Horvat is the future.

    When Mike Gillis traded Schneider for the 9th overall, I thought he fell and hit his head. I was so against that. Gillis bungled our goalie situation, but picking Horvat was a good move. I can see Horvat as a long time Canuck. Happy to have him.

    @ Fred – 65
    Yeah, I hear you. The youth movement can go bad very quickly(See Edmonton Oilers), but adding a few veterans will help. Sedins had to go. New blood has to take over, and that changing of the guard could not happen as long as Sedins were here.

  • argoleas

    Looking at that chart with club’s record with and without Horvat in the lineup, I imagine it looks more extreme when factoring Boeser’s presence/absence. And maybe even more extreme if we also factor in Sutter’s.

  • North Van Halen

    I think the eye test and the analytics test pretty much line up for Bo. He’s a great 2nd line centre and a pretty mediocre 1st line centre which quite honestly is as good as could be hoped and much better than most expected. Imagine just how screwed we’ld be right now had Gillis taken Nichushkin instead. Times 10 the best draft pick Gillis ever used. For anything.
    If Petterson can develop into that number 1 & Bo is rockin’ the 2 centre spot at a more than reasonable price of $5.5Mil (theres a lot of #2 centres making north of $6mil) we’ll have a pretty nice 1-2 punch.

    • canuckfan

      Agreed Bo is a buy and will be the heart and soul of the team. He may not get a scoring title but will go out and work his butt off. Was a tough year to gauge how he is as a number 1 center from getting injured himself to losing his wingers to injury. When the Canucks make the playoffs again he will be the driver and will take the team on his back and drive the play. Kessler had a mean streak where Bo does not and it was Kesslers mean streak that kept him from being truly great as it made him lose focus. Where Bo just keeps driving the play,he has the respect of his team mates where Kessler did not as he was a selfish player and was always about Kessler. Hope that Canucks get that elite center who can score as that would take a lot of the heat away from Bo as Bo is not that high scoring center he is a work horse who can do everything asked of him.
      I think the Canucks would have still been in the hunt for a playoff spot if Bo had not been injured as when he went down so did the team and it took awhile for the team to get it back without Bo. I think McDavid is learning a lot from Bo at the World Championship, not the other way around. Bo is more of a natural leader through hard work and earned respect, where as McDavid is a superstar with elite talent which does not always translate into being a leader except on the score sheet. Perhaps Bo can get McDavid wanting to join him in Vancouver in the future.

  • Bud Poile

    I don’t see any face off stats-even strength,offensive or defensive % ‘s.
    I know who carried this team defensively and shorthanded on faceoffs .
    The center ice position (and arguably a large part of a team’s success) revolves around the center’s f/o and possession ability at both ends of the ice.

    • Harman Dayal

      Faceoffs are taken into account with the GAR metric. Aside from that, I don’t think it really deserves much attention. They’re important for key late-game draws, though data has shown that faceoff wins aren’t really correlated with possession.

      • Locust

        Do you really believe that or are you just spouting the CA ‘company line’ that faceoff wins are not important?

        If they aren’t important than why even try to win it?

        When this issue was last discussed, to the best of my recollection, every single commenter (except for the fraud freud) said winning faceoffs were important while the CA narrative was nonsensically upheld by the writer.

        This is a ‘hockey knowledge’ credibility question for me. Choose carefully….

        • Dirk22

          Seriously? How much hand holding do you need here big guy?

          In a vacuum a face off win is better than a faceoff loss. What they’re saying is that their is no correlation between a good faceoff team and a good possession team. In other words, you can be a great faceoff team but still be a bad team. So it’s not that they’re completely unimportant but they’ve been traditionaly been given more importance than they should get. Ask yourself what is more important a) winning the faceoff b) controlling possession outside of the first few seconds a faceoff win might get you. You can have both a and b but a doesn’t necessarily lead to b.

          • Dirk22

            You’re getting there Bud. Next question. For how long does that team have the puck? What if they only have it for 2 seconds and then dump it out and cede possession? What if they can get through the neutral zone with it? Maybe they are great at holding onto the puck. Maybe they aren’t. That’s the more important part though – not necessarily the faceoff win.

            It might lead to more possession but it might not.

            Understand?

          • Bud Poile

            Dirk,last time I saw a team score without the puck I was watching Steve Smith.
            It doesn’t matter how long you have the puck.
            What matters is you gain possession and then maintain possession in order to score.
            After the face off is won the wingers or d-men are relied upon to maintain the possession game.
            Face off supremacy is an integral component to winning hockey games.
            Playoff hockey accentuates this obvious.

          • Locust

            OK Dirk I get your logic.

            Faceoffs are not important because you may or may not hold possession and may or may not advance the puck and may or may not get out of the zone and may or may not go down the ice and may or may not successfully enter the zone and may or may not get a scoring chance and may or may not score a goal and may or may not win the game.

            Its that kind of logic that gets a conman TV personality elected president of the USA.

            But i’d guess you actually have to watch the games instead of salivating over the stats sheet after….

          • Dirk22

            Huh. I thought the reason a con man was elected POTUS was a general lack of education, and a fear of progressive ideas and a reluctance to depart from archaic falsities.

          • Kootenaydude

            For those of you that say face offs aren’t important. Have you been watching the playoffs? Have you watched teams win a faceoff in the offensive zone and have the puck in the back of the net in less than a second?! If faceoffs weren’t important why do teams put out two players capable of taking a faceoffs? This is a dumb conversation Don Cherry knows it. Coaches know it. Analytics guys just cherry pick stats to argue that it isn’t.

        • Harman Dayal

          Faceoffs have some value for sure, but I believe that its importance is exaggerated. As I mentioned in the comment above, its value is already taken into account within the GAR metric.
          Brandon Sutter is a perfect example of the value that can be gained from a player proficient in the faceoff circle. Despite being very good at winning faceoffs, he has among the worst possession numbers in the league at five-on-five.

          Where faceoffs did benefit the team was shorthanded. Brandon Sutter is a good penalty killer and I certainly attribute some of that to his work winning draws.

          In the grand scheme of things, faceoffs matter, but likely not to the extent that many make it out to be. It makes a difference on the special teams and late in games when you need to win a key draw, but it isn’t as influential on possession as you may think.

          • Bud Poile

            With Sutter on the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks have allowed 1.93 goals against per hour, the second lowest rate of goals against on the team behind Brendan Gaunce.

            Only one player in the NHL has a higher ratio of defensive zone starts to offensive zone starts…Sutter has been on the ice for almost exactly three times as many defensive zone faceoffs as offensive zone faceoffs.

            Only Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres averages more than Sutter’s 9.7 defensive zone faceoffs per game, which includes shorthanded situations. On the penalty kill, Sutter leads the league in faceoffs taken by a wide margin: 3.2 per game, with Mikko Koivu’s 2.7 per game the next highest.

            On top of that, Sutter has been hard-matched against the opposition’s top lines all season.
            March 20,2018
            http://www.vancourier.com/pass-it-to-bulis/brandon-sutter-winning-in-the-playoffs-and-a-strong-link-game-1.23207548

          • Tedchinook

            The reality is that face-offs aren’t that important because they are so important. Every team works extremely hard on face-offs and the result is 26 of 31 teams have a season percentage between 47.5 and 52,5%. if the average game has about 60 face-offs that means one team wins 29 and one wins 31 if they’re at the extremes of that range. So over the long haul not much of a difference because all teams work hard on winning draws.

      • TD

        How many goals come off a face off win or how much time is killed off a penalty if with a defensive win and clear. Where I can see the stats now being very important is in the 48-52% range. The difference is not overly significant. Conversely, a poor face of guy like Granlund at around 40-42% vs 58-60% and the possession difference becomes more significant.

        • canuckfan

          Of course winning a face off in your own zone is important, but then the puck needs to be carried out of the zone and brought down the ice. Either from multiple passes of a player just carrying the puck out.
          Canucks biggest downfall last season was having to start the game down a goal early and most times the goal was not that good and the goalie should have stopped it. When they were healthy they could fight and get the goal back, but once the injuries hit it was harder to battle back and wore on the team mentally.

          • TD

            I agree that winning a faceoff is just the beginning and they do need to maintain possession, but if you have the puck you don’t need to go get it. I do believe the stats probably show that faceoffs aren’t statistically significant because a couple percentage points isn’t significant. Most players face off percentage is between 48-52% causing each team to basically win half. Situationally it is important, but not statistically over a season when each team wins half. I can understand that logic.

            It’s like Corsi now. Earlier this year, I commented on how there were some lower rated Corsi teams in the playoffs and some highly rated out of the playoffs. I think it was Ryan Beich who commented how all the teams were pretty good now as they recognize the importance of possession. Most teams are between 48-52% now, but 10 years ago there was apparently a 20% point gap between teams ranging from 40-60% Corsi. A 20 point difference is significantly significant.

            My point on this long diatribe is that faceoffs are important, but because all the teams now their importance and focus on them, the statisitcal significance doesn’t exist.

  • Holmes

    This is a big statistical wank that takes away from the greater issue: Horvat is a #2 centre holding down the fort until a true #1 centre arrives. I like Horvat a lot. Seems genuine, professional and driven to succeed. But the kid is a Honda Accord (maybe a nice one), not a Ferrari and not even a BMW.

  • Defenceman Factory

    Horvat’s continued development is encouraging. He still has a ways to go. To be considered a bona fide first line center he needs to have a positive goal differential against other teams’ top line. Both Bo’s line and the Sedin line generated significant offence last year but neither we hard matched against the opposition’s top line.

    Green often went with a hard match-up of Sutter’s line against the opposition’s top line. That is not to say I think Sutter is a great shutdown centre but the strategy did give Bo and Henrik somewhat easier match-ups and more opportunity to produce goals. As soon as Bo makes that next step and consistently holds his own against top line centres I expect the Canucks will look to move Sutter.