Bo Horvat. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bo Horvat hasn't followed a conventional rookie path. He did the savvy veteran things right first, and then came the offense.
Bo Horvat strolled off the ice after the Vancouver Canucks’ Wednesday practice in New York as the quintessential rookie and anything but, all at once.
Horvat wore a turquoise, old-fashioned Jofa helmet emblazoned with teammate Henrik Sedin’s No. 33. The lid perched itself like a toupee, high on Horvat’s head, and looked like something any team would force a rookie to wear. But there was no hazing involved whatsoever. And here’s where Horvat’s contradictory nature comes into play.
“I saw it and wanted to try it on,” Horvat said with a smile. “It doesn’t even fit me, but it’s a cool helmet.”
He saw something he liked and he grabbed it. He wore it with the confident swagger of a seasoned veteran, looking very little like a 19-year-old that played in the OHL nine months ago and more like a filled out 25-year-old at six-foot and 206 pounds.
It’s been abundantly clear since the Canucks withheld Horvat from playing for Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship that they believe he’s arrived. He’s been as hot as any Vancouver forward of late, amassing eight points in his past 10 games, delivering on the promise that made him the ninth overall pick at the 2013 draft.
He’s come along way considering coach Willie Desjardins didn’t think Horvat had a snowball’s chance in hell of making the team while conferring with GM Jim Benning just a few months ago.
“Early in the year, Jim talked about him coming in, and I just didn’t see a 19-year-old coming in and playing if we were going to try and make a run,” Desjardins said. “And until he proved it to me, I just didn’t believe it. We got in a situation where we got down guys, and he was playing good, and all of a sudden, there’s the one game in Vancouver where I had him play against Anze Kopitar’s line. He proved that he could battle.”
That Horvat's Corsi Close sits at at team-worst 44 percent suggests he's not winning all the battles yet. Horvat’s line will still get scored on from time to time, but that happens to any line, Desjardins says. And for someone Horvat's age, he's excelled at many of the “little things,” the mature stuff, before generating any offense at all. Usually these are the details rookies struggle to master. Take faceoffs, for example. Horvat wins more than half, which doesn’t usually happen when you’re a teenager in the NHL.
“As a rookie it’s tough to win draws against guys who’ve taken draws all their lives and have been in the league for a long time,” Horvat said. “It’s kind of surprising sometimes winning a lot of the draws, but there are some good nights and some bad nights. You just have to adjust to who you’re up against.”
An outstanding year as a checker coupled with dud offensive totals would’ve been mostly fine by Desjardins, who said he wanted Horvat focusing on the defensive side of the game all along and that any scoring surge would be a bonus. That explains why Horvat stayed in the lineup, because it certainly wasn’t for his offense. He scored twice in his first 29 games.
But something clicked. Horvat started scoring and doing so in games that really mattered against fellow playoff bubble teams Minnesota, Winnipeg and Calgary, not to mention juggernauts Chicago and Pittsburgh. He won at least half his draws in eight of his past 10 games, to boot.
Desjardins doesn’t believe Horvat has changed his game all of a sudden. Desjardins attributes the spike to Horvat and hardworking linemates Jannik Hansen and Ronalds Kenins “making pucks pop out” and Horvat’s increased willingness to gamble at the other end of the ice, which comes with experience. Horvat says simply carrying the puck more has boosted his confidence.
Whatever the reason, it looks like Horvat has reached a new echelon of freshman production just in time for a crucial stretch run, in which the Canucks soldier on with a depleted blueline. His life off the ice has started changing as a result. Horvat is no longer a faceless rookie. Hiding in a movie theatre is out of the question now.
“Pretty much everywhere I go now, someone’s saying ‘good job’ or saying hi to me on the street,” he said. “You get more and more recognized. It’s nice to see that the fans are really passionate there. They really know their hockey and know their players. So to be in a market like Vancouver is pretty awesome.”
And if the love-in between Horvat and Vancouver continues, who knows? He may trade Henrik's helmet for Henrik's 'C' someday.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin