We here in the Vancouver Canucks’ mediasphere and fanbase are, admittedly, prone to the occasional bout of delusion. And there’s been one, great collective delusion going on since about 2013 that might finally be at its end as of the acquisition of Jason Dickinson, and it’s the misconception that Bo Horvat is a shutdown center.
The myth began in Horvat’s draft year. While with the London Knights, Horvat proved to be a leader, a primo point-producer, and a playoff beast; all traits he’s carried with him into the NHL. But the Knights never deployed Horvat in a shutdown role, never saddled him with first unit penalty killing duties, and only occasionally asked him to match up with the best the OHL had to offer.
And, really, why would they? Horvat was their best overall player, and his talents were better used elsewhere.
But somewhere along the way, Horvat’s generally strong character and dedication to responsible play got conflated with some supreme defensive abilities that he simply did not possess. At the time of his draft, many had him pegged as a shutdown 3C in the Manny Malhotra vein. Now, on the one hand, Horvat has blown those expectations out of the water by becoming one of the very best second-line centers in the entire NHL. But he’s still never shaken that initial reputation of on-ice stinginess, even as he’s clearly and visibly struggled under such a role with the Canucks.
Make no mistake: Horvat has absolutely been employed as a shutdown center by head coach Travis Green in recent years. He plays more against opposing top lines than anyone else on the Canucks, and more than most forwards in the league in general. He starts most of his even-strength shifts in his own end, and is almost always out there when the Canucks are up by a goal late in the game. Even with faceoff ace Jay Beagle on the team, most crucial defensive zone draws go to Horvat.
On the one hand, Horvat’s offensive success while under this deployment is nothing short of remarkable. He’s become a nearly-elite NHL goal-scorer, and there was a significant portion of time — stretching back into the 2019/20 season, through the playoffs, and well into 2021 — where Alex Ovechkin was the only forward in the league to notch more goals.
Horvat’s points-per-game rate increased in each of his seasons until the last one, where it dipped from .77 to .70 amid some serious aggravating circumstances — still good enough to be the third-best rate of his career. Coincidentally enough, that drop coincided with Horvat’s toughest deployment to date with both Beagle and Brandon Sutter experiencing lengthy absences.
Defensively-speaking, however, Horvat has not been able to maintain that same degree of excellence.
Consider that Horvat has never had a positive even-strength Corsi rating over a full season. Consider that he’s only been on-ice for more even-strength goals for than goals against once in his career, during the 2017/18 season. Consider that Horvat’s Expected Goals ratio in 2021 was just 43.64%, the lowest since his sophomore season and the lowest of any Vancouver top-six not named Tanner Pearson.
Even fancier statlines, like JFresh’s Defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement), depict Horvat as a well-below-average defensive forward in every season but 2017/18, and as one who has got steadily worse since then as his matchups have got increasingly more difficult.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 18, 2021
Don’t expect us to explain WAR or even stand by it in full, but any way you slice it, it’s cause for concern.
Now, we’re not here to trash the captain. Not in the slightest.
As we mentioned before, there were some serious aggravating circumstances in play. A dreadful team around him, a lasting partnership with the inconsistent Pearson, a rotating cast of defensively questionable right wingers, the weight of the captaincy, and then all that COVID business.
That Horvat has handled all that, still eaten the hard minutes, and come out of it with his shapely head even a little bit above water is nothing short of remarkable. It’s better than most would be able to accomplish, and it’s probably a damn sight better than Sutter or Beagle would have managed if they had taken those same minutes.
And, hey, for every goal Horvat and his linemates let in, they’d usually get one back — a losing game over time, but a fun one to watch.
But that doesn’t change the reality that the shutdown role is not one that Horvat has ever been particularly suited to, nor one that he ever should have had to play had the Canucks had better options.
Well, now they do.
Enter Jason Dickinson.
As our own Brett Lee and Bill Huan have already elegantly broken down, Dickinson is an elite shot-suppressor capable of playing against opposing top lines and actually preventing them from scoring, all the while turning the play back the other way with great regularity.
In other words, he’s the shutdown center that the Canucks have been pretending Horvat is for far too long. But now that they have Dickinson, that time is finally over.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 17, 2021
Dickinson should slide into the 3C slot and immediately become the go-to matchup for the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and other oncoming center threats in the Pacific Division. He’ll likely be flanked by some defensively-responsible wingers in Pearson, Tyler Motte, or perhaps the rookie Vasily Podkolzin, making him all the more difficult to score against.
Some have pointed out that Dickinson is in line for some positive offensive regression, meaning he’s likely to return to his usual 30-point form in the seasons to come. But even if he doesn’t, his ability to break even or better against opposing top lines is a win — especially for Bo Horvat.
With Dickinson eating away those extra blue chunks on Horvat’s QoC chart, the captain is free to start enjoying the sort of deployment that a player of his offensive skill would usually receive, and that’s a rather frightening prospect for everyone else in the league.
The opponents’ best players will face Dickinson, and their best checkers will be deployed to stop Elias Pettersson and the Lotto Line, leaving Horvat to duke it out against second-rate scorers and defenders.
And if Horvat’s been able to score goals at a premium rate and pile up points as a shutdown center, just imagine what he’s going to do now that the hefty burden has been passed on to another ring-bearer.
Through his sheer presence in the lineup alone, Dickinson should reduce the number of goals scored against the Canucks and, through his freeing up of Horvat, he should also indirectly increase the number of goals they score.
So, don’t be fooled by the basic statline that tells you that Dickinson only scored seven goals last year. The swing in goal differential he’ll bring to Vancouver should be exponentially more impactful than that — and all for the low, low price of a single third round pick.
As far as trade targets go, this one was a masterstroke by Jim Benning and Co., and hopefully a precursor of a more precision-focused offseason to come under the watchful eye of the Sedins.