Iain MacIntyre: Bo Horvat's short-term pain should mean long-term gain

 

Plus side of minus: Canucks captain says Horvat’s ugly numbers are the result of forging a young leader in the hottest fires without the luxury of a coach’s shield

 
 
 
 
Centre Bo Horvat, age 20, is one of seven Canucks under the age of 24 on the current roster.
 

Centre Bo Horvat, age 20, is one of seven Canucks under the age of 24 on the current roster.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

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VANCOUVER — He’ll probably win the green jacket, but Bo Horvat deserves a medal and a hug.

No Vancouver Canucks player has suffered more due to circumstances this season than the 20-year-old centre who was, essentially, set up to fail in his second National Hockey League campaign.

Key centre Brandon Sutter, the very player acquired last summer to ease some of the pressure and expectation on Horvat, is out indefinitely with his second major injury and may finish his first Canucks season having played only four of the final 67 games.

Ready or not — and mostly not — Horvat was forced to play near the top of the lineup, right behind Henrik Sedin. And while head coach Willie Desjardins contorted to shield 19-year-old rookie Jared McCann, there was no protection for the centre only one year older.

Desjardins conceded as much last week, explaining the Canucks have too many young players to protect them all and Horvat is the one who has been most exposed. Game after game, Horvat has faced difficult matchups, made even less winnable by extra defensive-zone starts.

Still, none of that fully forgives or explains how Horvat, proud of his description as a 200-foot player, can be a minus-32 and vying with teammate Radim Vrbata (minus-32) and the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikkel Boedker (minus-30) for the imaginary green jacket that goes to the NHL’s worst plus-minus player, an ignominious booby prize compared with the green jacket that goes to the best golfer at the Masters. Yet through all this embarrassment and failure for Horvat, Sedin is even more convinced that the kid from rural Rodney, Ont., is his potential successor as captain.

“I’ve seen more leadership this year than I did last year,” Sedin said during the weekend road trip to California. “And I think you can see more this year than maybe next year (because) he has seen so many downs. I know he thinks about it a lot away from the rink and I’m sure he’s had trouble sleeping some nights. But he never shows that when he comes to the rink. He’s great to be around.

“He’s been overmatched in a lot of games. If you start in the defensive zone against Joe Thornton, you’re going to get minuses. The plus-minus, it is what it is. I still think he’s just the victim of being overmatched. And some games, he has tried so much to get something going, and it goes the other way. For him, it’s an off year. That’s all it is.

“We’re lucky he’s had to play those (tough) minutes, had to play against tough guys. He’s had to play when he’s tired. All those things make him a better player. It’s hard right now. But in the end, we’re better for it.”

Horvat’s plus-minus is finally starting to flatten — minus-two in the last eight games — and despite his ghastly defensive record, his second half has been good offensively.

He has had seven goals and 17 points in his last 26 games after starting the season with only two goals and eight points through 39 games.

He credits the offensive turnaround to a conversation he had with Sedin before a game in Philadelphia on Dec. 17 when the Canucks’ captain skated up to him and, as they slowly circled the ice, told Horvat how much he had struggled to score early in his career.

“I just asked him if he knew how many games I went my fourth year without scoring,” Sedin recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe 10.’ I said, ‘No, no. Thirty-two.’ He was surprised.”

It’s a nice story, if inaccurate. Sedin never went 32 games without a goal, but in his third season he scored just twice in the first 47 games. Horvat ended his 27-game goal drought on Jan. 4.

“Just for him to say that and know that it happens to the best players in the world, it just made me feel a lot better,” Horvat said.

“For him and for all the young guys, it’s not about the points or the goals,” Sedin insisted.

“That’s going to come. The focus this year, for the young guys, is teaching them how to play. If Jake (Virtanen) scores seven goals or 14 goals, it doesn’t matter.

“But if when he’s 22 or 23, he can be an everyday NHL player where you know he’s going to show up for every game and play well, that’s going to help him tremendously.

“As a young guy, you can have 40 or 50 or 60 points but not play the right way, and then you might never change that. We have to start from there: playing the right way.”

After a rookie season in which Horvat scored 10 goals after the all-star break and became one of the better Canucks forwards, he was desperate for a bigger role and major minutes this season against top players. Be careful what you wish for.

“There were times I wanted to be the guy who could change everything,” Horvat said. “But when you’re this young and you have that big of a weight on your shoulders and you put that much pressure on yourself, it tends to go the other way. Once I said, ‘Screw it. Just go out and play,’ things started to turn around for me.

“You get a whole new respect for how good these guys are and how good the league is.”

Horvat agrees with his mentor, Sedin, that this difficult season has made him better.

“I feel like I’m 30 right now,” he joked. “I don’t feel my age. A lot of 20-year-olds around the league aren’t in my position and having to play such a big role, trying to be a leader at such a young age. But I try to embrace it. It’s just going to make me stronger mentally and physically as a player.

“Honestly, if anything, this could be the best thing for me.”

imacintyre@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/imacvansun

 
 
 
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Centre Bo Horvat, age 20, is one of seven Canucks under the age of 24 on the current roster.
 

Centre Bo Horvat, age 20, is one of seven Canucks under the age of 24 on the current roster.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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