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Photo Credit: © Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Regression and Ice-Time: Analyzing Bo Horvat’s Dominant January

For Bo Horvat, personal accolades are a reflection of his team’s success.

Goals and assists are always a nice touch, but the ultimate statistics that Horvat worries about are found in the win and loss column.

Such is the weight of being an NHL captain in a rabid Canadian market starved of success.

The pressure on Horvat reached its zenith in November, when he was tasked with playing big minutes against elite competition while the Canucks nursed injuries down the middle. 12 points in 15 games was strong production for a second-line centre in a matchup role, but only two of those points were goals. Compounding on Horvat’s scoring slump was Vancouver’s November record. To the displeasure of the frustrated captain, his team went 5-7-3 to follow up their strong October start.

The 24-year-old’s underlying metrics during this time shed painted a favourable picture considering the tough opponents he faced off against. He had an adjusted 48.02% corsi-for and a 48.86% expected-goals-for, but what stands out is his shooting percentage over the slump. When Horvat was on the ice at even strength, the Canucks converted on just 6.98% of their shots and Horvat had a personal conversion rate of just 4%.

A player whose very nature wills him to be a difference-maker on a nightly basis could not buy a goal.

“The frustrating part is I feel like I’m spending zero time in my own end,” said Horvat at the time. “I feel like I’m getting my chances. It’s just not going in. Hopefully, it starts soon.”

The scoring slump would continue into December, as Vancouver’s centre managed to find the back of the net just twice in 13 games. His metrics continued to fall to an adjusted 46.01% corsi-for and 44.04% expected-goals-for at even strength.  This time, Vancouver’s record would not match their captain’s offensive performance as they went 8-5-0 in December including ending the year on a 5-game win streak.

The Vancouver Canucks now find themselves with an exceptional opportunity in a precarious division.  Bo Horvat may only be concerned about team success and team goals, but if the Canucks want to play meaningful games in April, offensive production from their captain and the second line is required.

Currently, Horvat is on pace for a career year in terms of offensive production. His 42 points in 49 games put him on pace to finish the season with 70 points, nine greater than his previous high. Despite the record pace, the narrative so far has been that his numbers have been inflated by the league’s 7th best power-play. Career years are often buoyed by increased production on a top power play, and up to this point in the season, Horvat’s role on the first unit has provided just that. Seven of his 16 goals have come on the man advantage, matching his previous season’s total in 34 fewer games.

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Looking further into the numbers, it’s clear fortunes have changed along with the turn of the calendar. In October and November, Horvat had six power-play goals to two even-strength goals. His offence in December fell off a cliff, as he only scored two goals in total, both at even-strength. However, since January 1st, Horvat has scored five even-strength goals and one power-play marker. It’s a fairly dramatic change that’s been influenced by a couple of different factors.

For starters, Horvat’s low shooting-percentage was unsustainable. Converting on just 4% of shots at even strength was not going to last for a career 11.1% shooter. Regression works both ways and Horvat is riding a positive slide in January. Below are his monthly splits at 5-on-5.

Month October November December January
Corsi-for% 55.62% 48.02% 46.01% 54.16%
expected-Goals-for% 48.82% 48.86% 44.04% 58.29%
individual-Shooting% 4.76% 4% 5% 18.75%
On-ice Shooting% 7.28% 6.51% 7.62% 12.10%

(data provided by naturalstatrick.com)

Horvat’s individual and on-ice shooting-percentage have also spiked in the month of January, which is a sign of positive regression, but his performance metrics have also seen a sharp increase. Travis Green’s reliance on Horvat to play against the opposition’s top lines has not changed. In the eight games of January, these were the most common lines that he played against according to naturalstattrick.com.

Coyotes Hall-Dvorak-Garland
Jets Ehlers-Copp-Wheeler
Wild Parise-Koivu-Zuccarello
Sabres Vesey-Eichel-Reinhart
Panthers Huberdeau-Barkov-Dadonov
Lightning Stamkos-Point-Kucherov
Rangers Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich
Blackhawks Kubalik-Toews-Kane

Horvat has routinely drawn the toughest assignments and has still posted positive numbers at even-strength, even with the poor Florida trip. Though Horvat’s matchup role has continued, he’s seen a noticeable decrease in overall ice-time due to the return of players like Jay Beagle, who can help shoulder some of the load. Below in green, the line represents Horvat’s average ice-time per month. The four months on the right side of the graph represent this season. We can see Horvat’s ice-time spike in November while Horvat’s points-per-game declines in blue.

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This isn’t the first time an increase in ice-time has resulted in a decrease in production for Horvat. Last February, the pivot saw his playing time increase to over 21 minutes a game and his production faltered to a 15-month low. Currently, Horvat is playing a season-low in average ice-time per game this month, but his production is on a steep incline at over 1.3 points-per-game. This graph should not necessarily be taken as evidence of a correlation between ice-time and production for Horvat, but something can be said for finding the optimal amount of ice-time for Horvat to be at his best.

Bo Horvat is playing nearly three minutes less on average than his November, which is a pretty staggering difference. This shift in ice-time should be felt especially when playing defence. Play away from the puck takes a high amount of energy. It involves constantly stopping and starting, thwarting the cycle, and blocking lanes, all while keeping tabs on the mayhem of moving pieces in the defensive end. It’s tiresome work and for a two-way centre like Horvat who prides himself on his defensive effort, there is often not much left in the tank when playing upwards of 22 minutes in a game.

Harman Dayal of The Athletic wrote about the impact of Bo Horvat’s defensive play a few weeks ago. By the eye test, he found that Horvat’s lethargic foot and close-out speed was costing the Canucks at even-strength. This half-a-step difference in timing may seem marginal, but in a game as fast as hockey, it can be the difference between a win or a loss. Dayal also found that Horvat’s reads and rotations in his own end weren’t good enough to compensate for his poor foot speed, as he was missing assignments and leaving holes in the Canuck’s defensive structure. How much of this can be attributed to fatigue is hard to know for sure, but for such a taxing position with an abundance of defensive responsibilities, the ailments that Dayal writes about are surely affected by weariness to some degree.

Following the winter break and a decrease in minutes, Horvat has looked refreshed and energetic. Against Winnipeg on January 14, Horvat exerts a fine effort against Kyle Connor in a net-front battle and is able to eliminate Connor’s stick from the play. In the slot, Horvat keeps his feet moving and his head on a swivel, making sure to stay goal-side of Connor.

This isn’t to say he’s been perfect defensively in the New Year but the lighter workload certainly enables him to make less mental mistakes from exhaustion.

A strength to Bo Horvat’s defensive game has always been his willingness to help his defencemen down low and provide support. A common trait of elite two-way centremen is their constant presence deep in the defensive end as it helps to alleviate pressure and serves as puck support to start a breakout. Here, Horvat is supporting Chris Tanev and helps to win back the puck. Under pressure himself, he drops the puck back to an open Tanev which initiates Vancouver’s transition.

Responsible play in the defensive end leads to offensive zone time. Continuing on in this play, Horvat receives a drop pass from Quinn Hughes as the Canucks break-in. Horvat, with his head up, quickly feeds the puck over to Tanner Pearson for a great chance and then follows it up by ringing the puck off iron.

Strong defence has been one of the contributors to Horvat’s uptick in offence, but another component of his hot stretch has been his play with the puck when attacking. He’s benefitted from taking shots in the most dangerous area on the ice. Through his eight January games, Horvat has scored three of his goals in the near-slot or ‘home plate’ area of the ice and as taken a majority of his shots from there as well.

Yes, Vancouver’s captain has received fortuitous puck luck and a couple of empty-net goals to pad his numbers but where Horvat has made his presence felt is attacking the offensive end with speed. In his goal against the Minnesota Wild, Horvat uses his speed to attack the blue line and fires a shot that deflects to Tanner Pearson on the opposite side. The puck gets lost in the Wild crease and Horvat is there to jam the puck home.

Against the New York Rangers, Horvat used his speed to set up a Tanner Pearson chance in the slot.

Another area that Horvat has positively impacted Vancouver has been his ability to maintain control of the puck. Here he uses two cut-back turns to create space for himself and set up an Antoine Roussel goal.

Against the Jets, Horvat displays incredible puck protection as he shields the puck away from multiple Jets for a prolonged stretch until he can send the puck up to Oscar Fantenberg.

The fact that Horvat and his line are generating shots from the ‘home plate’ area is promising and could be an indicator of more goals to come. When we compare the frequency of shots that Horvat took from in tight between last season and the current season, one could argue that more regression is in the future.

(Top is 2018-19, Bottom is 2019-20)

In his first season as the Vancouver Canucks’ captain, Bo Horvat has shouldered the responsibilities in full stride and is settling into a crucial two-way role. With increased confidence and some help from shooting regression and lighter workloads, Horvat is playing some of the best hockey of his career which bodes favourably for Vancouver’s playoff hopes.