Bo Horvat’s play this season with the struggling Vancouver Canucks has been a revelation.
Second in the NHL in goals trailing only Connor McDavid, Horvat is playing the best hockey of his nine-season career. In fact, he’s playing too well for the Canucks to let him go, and simultaneously, too well for the Cancuks to keep him.
A pending unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, Horvat is playing his way into a significant raise over his current $5.5 million cap hit. With changes imminent in Vancouver, however, Horvat’s personal success make him the prime candidate for the organization to sacrifice to turn their fate around.
The Canucks need a change after making the playoffs only once in the past seven seasons and again stumbling out of the blocks this year. Those changes, whether it begins with firing coach Bruce Boudreau, or a trade, are coming according to team president Jim Rutherford.
"We're at a point now where we have to make players more accountable and we'll have to take the necessary steps to get players' attention," Rutherford told Sportsnet.
Watching the return players such as Claude Giroux, Brandon Hagel and Tyler Toffoli garnered at or near last year’s NHL trade deadline, none of whom with the impact of Horvat, the Canucks would almost certainly receive multiple high picks and/or top prospects for Horvat. It’s a treasure chest of riches a franchise in trouble would be foolish not to consider, especially after opting not to cash in on star winger J.T. Miller's career year last season.
Already pinned against the salary cap, and using long term injured reserve relief to stay cap compliant, the task of re-signing Horvat may not even be possible given the raise he’ll require. Currently, the Canucks also have significant roster needs, specifically on defense. The team has struggled to defend this season and lost out on multiple free agents last summer attempting to shore up the position. A Horvat trade could address that need immediately and into the future. Rutherford and Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin already made a minor move this season acquiring Ethan Bear in an attempt to improve their beleaguered blueline, but they also acknowledge the need to continue to build a younger, stronger backend.
"We need to make it younger," Rutherford said of his blueline. "We took a step forward there when we finally were able to get Ethan Bear, we worked at that deal for a few months but we didn't have the cap space and finally got creative enough that we could do it.”
Another consideration for the Canucks is a lack of prospect depth compared to other non-contending teams. Aside from 2022 first-round pick Jonathan Lekkerimäki and AHLer Linus Karlsson, there is a lack of excitement in the pipeline. There is organizational depth needs at almost every position, and replenishing with additional first-round picks, or bringing in prospects who are closer to NHL ready would be a windfall for Vancouver.
While it’s unlikely Horvat’s torrid start — 12 goals through Vancouver’s first 14 games — will continue, he has scored more than 40 goals over his last 82 games. It’s consistency that will make any deal for the 27-year-old center a blockbuster.
Currently, however, the Canucks say keeping Horvat is the focus.
“Our priority is to keep Bo," Rutherford said. "I give him a lot of credit. He could lose his focus here and be thinking about what's going to happen with his contract and whatnot, but he came in ready to play and he's played terrific for us… I hope we can sign him.”
Despite that assertion, Rutherford immediately followed that statement by acknowledging that the return for Horvat, and the necessity for a trade could become a possibility as the season progresses.
“If we can't sign him, the better we play, the better return we're going to get for him, so it works out for everybody, but ideally we can figure out a way to keep Bo in Vancouver."
In the meantime, Horvat is focused on leading the Canucks. In his fourth season as team captain, Horvat is working to show the Canucks, fans, and the rest of the league what type of player he is. That way, when an eventual trade or contract does arrive, the reward for all involved will be optimized.
“I just want to play hard, I want to prove to myself that I’m a good hockey player, a guy that can be a leader, score and be a 200-foot player,” Horvat said following a two-goal performance against this Ottawa Senators this month. “I want to prove that to myself and to everyone else.”
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