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Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

How will Brock Boeser fit next to Bo Horvat if he plays on the second line?

Guess what? Hockey will be back in less than two weeks.

Yep. We’ve finally reached the end of The-Year-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and everything will hopefully go back to normal soon.

Oh, who am I kidding? In a world in which Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire (still the best version) will return to play their respective web-slingers in Spider-Man 3, who knows what 2021 has in store for us?

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The Vancouver Canucks might have a few surprises up their sleeve as well, such as putting Jake Virtanen on the top line and re-uniting Brock Boeser with Bo Horvat to balance out the top six in the wake of Tyler Toffoli’s departure.

If Travis Green does elect to do this, then it’ll be useful to examine how the two young stars might mesh together, which is what we’ll be doing today.

Will Horvat and Boeser make a good fit?

Everyone remembers when Boeser took the league by storm in his rookie season, and he was glued to Horvat’s wing for the majority of that year. Since then, they’ve mostly played on separate lines due to the emergence of Elias Pettersson, but the duo has put up some interesting numbers during their time together.

Time spent at 5 on 5 Corsi (CF%) Expected Goals (xGF%)
2017-18 457:04 49.61 49.88
2018-19 318:10 51.07 50.51
2019-20 92:57 44.44 43.28

Looking at those stats, I was definitely surprised to see them post such lackluster numbers together last year considering their previous success.

Fortunately, there’s more to this story that helps explain the poor results that they produced in 2019-20. Corsi and expected goals are stats that rely on shot volume, but they don’t take into account a player’s deployment.

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Unlike previous seasons, Horvat and Boeser’s offensive zone starts plummeted last season when they were together, especially at five on five.

Offensive zone faceoff % (at five on five)
2017-18 57.51
2018-19 63.23
2019-20 45.59

Their lack of faceoffs in the offensive zone naturally decreased their opportunities to generate shots, which caused their low Corsi and expected goals figures.

Now, please hang on while I try and do some kindergarten level math. Corsi is calculated using the number of shots that each team attempts with a certain player on the ice, and the percentage is worked out by dividing each team’s shot attempts by the total amount of shots attempted by both sides.

With Horvat and Boeser together last season, they attempted 76 shots while giving up 95, which is how the 44.44% was calculated. If we adjust their offensive zone starts to the level it was at in 2018-19, their shot attempts would proportionally increase to roughly 105, which would result in a Corsi of 52.7%.

The same logic applies to expected goals. In their 93 minutes of five on five time together, Horvat and Boeser had an expected goals for of 2.95 and an expected goals against of 3.86. However, if we increase the offensive zone faceoff percentage that they had last year to the amount they shared in 2018-19, their expected goals for would skyrocket to 4.09, resulting in an expected goals percentage of around 51.4%.

Offensive zone faceoff % Corsi (CF%) Expected Goals (xGF%)
Actual 2019-20 stats 45.59 44.44 43.28
Adjusted 2019-20 stats 63.23 (2018-19 figure) 52.7 51.4

In other words, their poor underlying numbers last season is more indicative of a shift in deployment rather than any decline in play. Yes, I could’ve written that out at the beginning instead of making you labour through my incoherent calculations, but where’s the fun in that?

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It’s important to remember that the results I got are only a rough estimate of Horvat and Boeser’s stats based on their past offensive deployment, and there are obviously a number of other factors that haven’t been taken into account. For instance, an increased number of offensive zone starts would mean that the opposition would have spent less time in the Canucks end, so the pair’s Corsi and expected goals rate might be even better.

Even without considering those variables, their adjusted stats are slightly higher than in previous seasons, which makes sense considering the growth that both players have gone through over the years.

Boeser, in particular, has made tremendous strides in his defensive game. His two-way presence has earned the trust of Travis Green, which is why he started so few shifts in the offensive zone when paired with Horvat.

In his rookie season, the Canucks allowed more expected goals per 60 minutes with Boeser on the ice than without him. This isn’t overly surprising since many young players struggle with their two-way game when they first enter the league, but it does prove that the winger was a defensive liability back then considering he made a bad defensive team even worse.

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He became a more well-rounded player in 2018-19, as Vancouver gave up less expected goals every hour with Boeser playing than without him. Even so, the team still conceded more scoring chances with him on the ice than the league average, although the margin was slim.

However, his game took a huge defensive leap last year, as the Canucks were miles better defensively with him in the game at five on five.

If the coaching staff does decide to play Boeser on Horvat’s wing, then expect them to continue starting a majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. This might result in uglier underlying stats than expected, but as we’ve already established, that has more to do with deployment rather than poor play.

Offensively, I’d expect both to be on a point pace in the mid to high 60s over an 82 game season, which would be a 45 point pace in this year’s condensed 56 game schedule. Horvat will likely see an uptick since he’ll be playing alongside a more potent scorer, while Boeser’s production might decrease a bit because he won’t be on the same line as Pettersson or J.T. Miller anymore.

The one caveat to this would be the two-way play of the third line. If Adam Gaudette improves his defensive game and Antoine Roussel has a bounce-back season, this would allow them to take on more defensive responsibility and free up Horvat’s line to focus more on offence. He and Boeser might then be able to score more points and allow the Canucks to have a more balanced attack.

Simply put, there’s no reason to be alarmed over the underwhelming stats that Boeser and Horvat produced last year. If they do indeed play together for large portions of this season, Vancouver’s second line will get an instant boost offensively while also being more responsible in their own end due to Boeser’s reliable two-way game. The two young stars should fit seamlessly on the same line and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they might accomplish this year.

All stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and HockeyViz.