Is Bo Horvat Already a First Line Centre?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:17 am by Jeremy Davis

Ever since the Canucks began showing signs of decline a few years back, fans have been pondering where the next great offensive players are going to come from once the Sedins have ridden off into the sunset. It’s been pretty clear to everyone sitting at home that the Canucks don’t have much of a succession plan for their top line, with no high calibre centre prospect currently in the system.

So naturally, the inclination is to wonder whether Bo Horvat, the best young centre that they have in their organization, is going to be able to develop his game to the point where he can take on the mantle of a top line player. He himself seems to think so, and his recent hot streak has lent credence to the concept.

But Bo Horvat’s recent hot streak really isn’t all that “recent” anymore. Stretching all the way back to late December of 2015, Bo Horvat has been the Canucks most productive player, with numbers that aren’t just impressive compared an otherwise woeful Canuck offence – they’re damn impressive in general.

So it’s time to ask the question: is Bo Horvat already a first line centre?

Related: Predicting Horvat’s Next Contract

To put this theory to the test, we’re going to dive into the stats – this is Canucks Army after all, and stats are what we do.

First things first, let’s have a look at Horvat’s deployment. We already know that Willie Desjardins isn’t deploying Horvat like a first line centre – that’s still Henrik Sedin’s job for now. This graph shows the percentage of available 5-on-5 ice time that Henrik and Horvat are taking up (Daniel Sedin and Sven Baertschi have been thrown in there too for good measure).

10Gm pcTOI

You’ll notice that both the Sedins and Horvat have seen their share of ice time increase, as the Canucks have loaded up what is essentially their top two lines, moving Brandon Sutter to the wing with the Sedins. With Michael Chaput and Brendan Gaunce as the other two centres, Henrik Sedin and Horvat are being heavily leaned on.

One centre is paying more dividends than the other, and it isn’t the one who has been in the top two of team scoring for the past ten straight seasons. Instead, it’s 21-year old Bo Horvat, who’s currently leading the Canucks with 16 points in 23 games.

Horvat has actually been carrying the Canucks offence for quite a while, as evidenced by the percentage of the team’s even strength goals that he’s been directly involved in. This graph shows a rolling average of each player’s primary points as a percentage of team goals:

30Gm pcTmGF

The fact that Horvat’s grey line has been at the top for only about a quarter of the chart doesn’t fully demonstrate just how like he’s been this team’s engine. The intersection between the orange line (Daniel Sedin) and Horvat occurred about 20 games ago, and this is a thirty game rolling average, indicating that at the point of crossover (which was October 18th, 2016), Horvat had been producing a larger portion of the Canucks’ offence over the past 30 games, which dates back to mid-February of this year. That’s a mighty long stretch where he’s been their most productive player at 5-on-5.

As mentioned above, it’s not just that Horvat’s rate of production have been impressive compared to his teammates, but he’s impressing on a larger scale. Here we see a 30-game rolling average of his and Henrik’s Primary Points per 60 minutes:

30Gm PrP60

You’ll note that it hasn’t been that long since the twins were dominating in this department. It’s easy to forgot the hot start they got off to last season prior to Henrik’s back injury – their production still hasn’t fully recovered.

Likewise, the memory of Bo Horvat’s sophomore slump has all but faded away. After a dreadful start to the 2015-16 campaign, Horvat took off at the turn of the calendar year and has been producing at a first line rate consistently for pretty much the entirety of 2016.

Horvat has been benefiting from a 21.6 percent individual shooting percentage this season, and while that is definitely going to come down over the course of a season, there’s reason to believe that he’ll be an above average finisher based on the locations of his shots – but that’s an article for another time.

In the meantime, what can see now is that Horvat is leading our Canucks sample based on Expected Goals For per 60 minutes for the last little while, indicating that he’s generating chances at a top line rate regardless of his elevated shooting percentage.

30Gm xGF60

An interesting side note here is how brutal the Canucks have been how large portions of the last season and a bit, when four of their best forwards are generating chances at rates that fall below third or even fourth line average rates over large chunks of time.

What This Means

There’s no surefire guarantee that Horvat is going to be able to continue this pace indefinitely, but it would be foolish not to recognize the fact that he’s been one of, if not the best Canucks forward for about 11 months now. Horvat is not only on the cusp of becoming the Canucks’ first line centre by default, but he’s becoming a bona fide first line centre by the standards of the National Hockey League in general.

Horvat is currently on pace for 57 points, and while that’s not terribly impressive, it still would have been 51st best among forwards last season. With one first line centre and three first line forwards per team, and thus 30 first line centres and 90 first line forwards league wide, that is already first line production by raw points alone. The difference between the lower and higher ends of first line production often has to do with getting help along the way.

Horvat’s rate of primary production suggests that he’s creating most of his point totals on his own. The difference between his current on-pace projection and a more gaudy point total (say 70, or even 80 points) might just be having one or two bona fide first line wingers to play with at even strength, and time on a functional first unit power play.

One caveat to go with this generally cheery article is that Horvat is still being deployed as a middle six centre, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect his scoring rates to stay the same in the event that his even strength ice time rises. He also currently has the benefit of Henrik Sedin drawing the toughest matchups in terms of checking lines and top defensive pairings, and it should be mentioned that, in spite of excellent production, Horvat is still struggling in terms of keeping play consistently tilted towards the direction of the opposition, as evidence by sub-50 percent shot metrics, though that too has been improving of late (and no, it’s not because of his zone starts).

Another important point is that even though Horvat’s current production has him in the range of a first line forward, it’s not at the level of what you’d want on a contending team. Ideally you’d want a borderline first line centre as your second line centre on a powerhouse squad, with an elite centre that can occupy the top spot ahead of him. The Ryan Kesler to a Henrik Sedin, if you will. Which is to say that the Canucks should still be hoping to land a franchise centre at the draft, such as Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier.

Still, if we’re strictly talking about producing among the NHL’s thirty best centres, Horvat is making a case to be included in the conversation, and with that the Canucks organization currently has to offer, he’s is your best bet at carrying that offensive load.

Despite being ninth overall prospect from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, we once thought that Horvat’s ceiling would be as a two-way middle six centre. He’s shattered expectations ever since he broke into the league in 2014-15 and is starting to produce like you’d expect from a top ten NHL draft pick. We can keep on spending time debating whether Bo Horvat can become a first line centre in the NHL, or we can step back and admit that he’s already there.