Monday, January 06, 2014

Bo Horvat at the World Juniors: Not Canada's first-line centre, and that's okay

Horvat didn't turn in the ideal offensive performance,
but he was among Canada's best overall players.

It isn't often that Canucks fans are blessed with a Canadian poster boy for the World Juniors. In the last three years before 2014, the Canucks didn't have a single Canadian in the competition, period. (#ShouldHaveBroughtCorrado.) Between 2006 and 2011, Canucks management took a total of three Canadians in either of the first two rounds of the draft -- Taylor Ellington, Yann Sauve and Cody Hodgson.

Not only was he whose name we do not speak Hodgson (2008) the last player to even suit up for Canada at the Juniors before Horvat, he is likely the most successful Canucks prospect at the tournament of all-time. And well, we all know how that ended up for Vancouver. So with both Hodgson's infamous end as a Canuck and the team's recent dearth of high-end Canadian prospects in mind, it was with great anticipation that Horvat was earmarked as the country's number one centre.

Horvat entered Canada's selection camp with 31 points in his last 17 games. Heralded as one of just a few locks to make the team, he was one of three players strategically healthy scratched in Canada's tune-up against the CIS Selects. Now, despite Canada's recent drought at the junior level, the country retains, far and away, the deepest and most extensive pool of talent in the world. So to be guaranteed a World Junior roster spot at 18 years old is heady praise indeed. Even if some of it came from Ron MacLean's friends at HNIC. (For the record, I'm partial to that segment's host, Elliot Friedman.)

After a trio of low-stakes games to start his World Junior tenure (two exhibition games and a 7-2 opener against Germany), Horvat's first real test came against the Czechs. As with most of his teammates, Horvat's performance in Canada's second round robin game was very much a mixed bag.

Down 1-0 and on the man advantage, Horvat one-touched a pass to Sam Reinhart, who completed a very efficient tic-tac-toe play. It was this sort of easy scoring that Sutter, and practically everyone following the tournament, had envisioned when he placed Horvat between Reinhart and Connor McDavid. In most part sparked by McDavid's struggles early in the tournament, however, all three players were permanently dispatched to separate even strength lines by next game. Horvat next made it onto the scoresheet with a minus on the Czechs' 3-2 goal in the third. After the puck hops up on a scrambled draw, Horvat is outmuscled by opposing centre Vojtech Tomecek who quickly swipes the puck in. The play is more puck luck for Tomecek than bad defence for Horvat, but this is pretty much the last thing you want to happen on a defensive zone faceoff.

Canada's next game against Slovakia marked a distinct turning point in Horvat's use in the lineup. With Nic Petan turning in a 3-point performance, including the last two goals in a 5-3 comeback win, Horvat was firmly supplanted from the top six, sparking his eventual role on the checking line alongside captain Scott Laughton. After being held pointless against Slovakia, Horvat registered a pivotal assist on McDavid's go-ahead goal against the States. Retaining his original linemates of McDavid and Reinhart on the second powerplay, Horvat grinds the puck towards the net -- a play that will likely characterize any of his future success in the NHL -- for McDavid to bang in. The goal, just after the powerplay expired, came on the heels of a pair of very strong shifts from Horvat, once again characterized by his play down low, that really helped set the tone for Canada to finish the game strong and pull ahead.

And now for a moment of honesty. I will admit that I did not watch a single minute of Canada's quarterfinal against Switzerland. Because, well, it's Switzerland. The IIHF game sheet, however, does tell me that he was on the ice for the Griffin Reinhart's 1-0 goal. So that's good, no? Plus, the IIHF highlight package tells me that despite not making it to the scoresheet (though he and Laughton arguably should have), Horvat is front and centre on this play. After winning the faceoff, a skill that he led Team Canada in at a 63% rate (third overall), Horvat follows Laughton to the net and helps free the puck for Reinhart. Again, Horvat generates a goal by being an active presence below the hash marks. Good news.

After the game, Sutter praised Horvat for his "steadying...two-way play", while newly-appointed director of player development Stan Smyl echoed the sentiment, heralding him for his overall game. And if you watched the HNIC segment with Friedman linked above, you'll notice Dale Hunter highlighting a lot of the same.

Entering the semifinal, here's where it obviously gets ugly for Team Canada. With Drouin and Petan simultaneously out for half the second period, the onus was seemingly on Horvat, the next centre on the offensive depth chart, to fill the void with the team trailing. Apart from his crossbar off the rush against the States, however, it's clear that he is not a game-breaker in the same way as Drouin, Mantha or even Petan. For that reason, he was simply not the person to put the team on his back with Canada's top two centres out. Not that it made much of a difference with Canada coming up entirely flat with all four centres in the third. Despite his inability to rise to the offensive challenge in the second, the Canucks' best prospect was a comparative bright spot in an extremely frustrating Team Canada performance.

Sutter's go-to penalty killer at centre, Horvat dropped himself in front of a pair of Finnish one-timers in the second that could have put the game out of reach far earlier. Despite being clearly hurt by one block in particular, Horvat was subsequently involved in a few of Canada's rare forays into the Finnish zone during the second half of the game.

All things told, Horvat turned in a steady workman's performance with glimpses of offensive finish. Three points in seven games was truthfully not the romantic version of the London-native that Canucks and Team Canada fans alike were expecting when he began the tournament. Nonetheless, it is the sort of performance that will likely pave the way for a much longer NHL career than his other, more-celebrated teammates; for example, the clearly offensively-gifted, but seemingly one-dimensional Mantha.

And if Horvat can't bring his two-way game to a Rogers Arena near you by next October, you know that he'll be a force for Canada in Toronto and Montreal next year. And when you have a ship listing as badly as Canada's junior program, the team can use as many steadying presences as they can muster.


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