What We Learned: Wishful thinking for Canucks

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The Canucks say he’s a “foundational” player. Which is why they gave Bo Horvat six years and $33 million just before the start of the weekend.

Call it a Friday news dump, because while Horvat is certainly one of the better young players in the organization, that’s a lot of money to give to a player with about half a point a game in his career.

That description is a little unfair to Horvat, of course, because he has 92 points in his last 163 games. Pretty good number, and he doesn’t exactly get a ton of ice time (about 17:35 a night the last two seasons). But the whole “foundational” thing seems to indicate that this is about to be His Team, and the question has to be asked: His this a franchise center or anything close to it?

Better yet, is Horvat anything close to a $5.5 million player right now?

That cap hit puts him in the low-30s in terms of what centers get paid in the league, which in theory means the Canucks think he’s the 33rd- or 34th-best center in the league. Or will at least become that in the relatively near future. In fact, given his RFA status and the fact that they were buying only a few years of unrestricted free agency, Vancouver probably thinks this makes Horvat something of a bargain.

Seems like a big bet, no?

Put another way, guys don’t become $5.5 million players simply because you pay them like it. The Canucks, based on the contracts they’ve given out over the past few years (Luca Sbisa, Brandon Sutter, Erik Gudbranson, etc.), should know that by now.

And yet here we are with an overly speculative contract for Bo Horvat, who yes, led the team in scoring last year, but was 39th among NHL centers. (He and Sven Baertschi were roughly the same in terms of 5-on-5 points per 60.)

The idea seems to be that Horvat’s offensive game has a little bit more of a ceiling than what he’s shown so far, and that’s fair enough. He’s 22 and therefore probably has another three to five years of growing to do. But there’s also the suggestion that while he might never be their top-line center, except by default because there are some lean years ahead, he’s going to be used as their shut-down guy, and that’s what makes him worth the $5.5 million.

But he certainly hasn’t shown he has that capability yet in this league. In fact, he hasn’t done anything close to that. Here are his ranks in 5-on-5 events allowed per 60 among 196 guys who played at least 500 full-strength minutes last season, at least partly at the pivot. They’re not great:

That doesn’t exactly scan as the kind of guy who’s a guaranteed shutdown guy, especially because — and you’re not gonna believe this, folks! — Horvat got fewer 5-on-5 minutes per game than Sutter. In effect, he was their No. 2/3 center, which is fine. Tough to hold that against him since it’s not up to him who he plays, but at the same time, you have to understand he’s getting not just outplayed but actively caved in against middle-six competition, albeit starting far more often than not in his own zone on a very bad team.

It’s worth acknowledging that the Canucks have made a coaching change and were shambolic throughout the lineup. The now-departed Willie Desjardins was clearly not very good at his job, and the Canucks roster on the whole didn’t help much. A new, apparently smart coach in Travis Green and maybe some help from potential linemate Brock Boeser could goose the offensive performance and, who knows, maybe even help seal off things defensively. That’s kind of a big ask right out of the gate, though. Especially given the player’s history of success, or lack thereof.

But like it or not, Horvat’s contract and where this franchise is headed all but guarantees he’s going to be drawing some very difficult minutes in the years ahead, and the fact that he can’t reasonably outperform his teammates in something of a sheltered role should be concerning. If he’s getting crushed by second lines, what happens when the Sedins go away and he’s matched up against, say, the Connor McDavids and Johnny Gaudreaus of his division and not the Ryan Nugent-Hopkinses or Kris Versteegs?

All of that having been said, it’s not that the AAV on this deal is necessarily a bad one. At least insofar as it shouldn’t matter for them, as they’re rebuilding and they still have a little bit of cap space today, plus whatever they get for the coming talent sell-off closer to the deadline, plus all the wiggle room they get with the Sedins likely calling it a career at the end of this season. At that point the money almost certainly doesn’t matter.

It’s more that the Canucks felt like they had to pay this player — rightly so, because the alternative was obviously not-paying him — but probably overpaid him, at least based on what he’s shown and the projected role he’ll take on after this coming season.

This deal isn’t necessarily a bad one. Horvat could grow into the kind of player they believe he will be. But he would have to walk a long, long road to do it, especially in his own end. And if he can’t travel it, then this becomes just another Canucks contract where, three or four years from now, everyone’s saying, “That wasn’t very smart.” And it’s happened a lot in the Jim Benning era, so at least all involved got plenty of practice.

Yeah, Vancouver locked up a “foundational” guy, but they also gave that label to Sutter and Gudbranson just a few years ago. Maybe it’s important to remember just who gives out these honorifics and why. Right now, this is a team in the business of selling the future, and Horvat, for better or worse, is the future of the franchise.

That is, until someone with a higher ceiling — Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, etc. — comes along after this team finishes in the bottom three for the next few years. Then it’s very possible that the back end of this deal becomes onerous and regrettable.

Or, y’know, standard operating procedure for the Canucks.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: What “hump” do you think we’re talking about here? They got to the Western Conference Final with a weirdly unbalanced to roster and not-good coach, right? Doesn’t that seem like the ceiling?

Arizona Coyotes: I can’t imagine anyone has the Coyotes as a playoff team but so much has changed I don’t know if they’re the 18th-best team in the league or the 28th. Very weird!

Boston Bruins: Wow, Jake DeBrusk! Remember him?

Buffalo Sabres: This is an improved club, but they still have no talent whatsoever deeper in the lineup. Or on the blue line.

Calgary Flames: I have some bad news, folks.

Carolina Hurricanes: This is a very nice thing the Hurricanes did but maybe the people of Houston don’t want to hear the word “hurricane” too much there days. Worth remembering that the Hurricanes themselves were named less than a year after Hurricane Fran, which battered their new home state in 1996. It caused billions in damage and killed 14 people. Why would you name your team after that?

Chicago: Really excited to see what Alex DeBrincat can do in the NHL this year.

Colorado Avalanche: Hmm, probably not!

Columbus Blue Jackets: Motivated or not, Jack Johnson is still horrible.

Dallas Stars: I can’t stress this enough: Slow down.

Detroit Red Wings: New rink looks like, but the fans probably won’t like the product on the ice very much.

Edmonton Oilers: I don’t like this kind of language from Connor McDavid!!!

Florida Panthers: The Panthers really stepped up ahead of Irma. Let’s hope they can actually play home games when the season starts in a few weeks.

Los Angeles Kings: Well, let’s start the bidding on Drew Doughty then.

Minnesota Wild: Bruce Boudreau seems like a delight. I love him.

Montreal Canadiens: This is the good stuff.

Nashville Predators: Well there goes that whole “trading for a center” thing.

New Jersey Devils: Hey, sure, Tim Erixon. Alright. Fine.

New York Islanders: Just move the team already. Good lord.

New York Rangers: I wonder who was making this kind of point last year? What handsome genius was saying “Don’t get your hopes up on Jimmy Vesey” and every Ranger fan was very mad about it? Someone very smart and cool and so nice, no doubt.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators came up with a great idea: If you can’t sell out, just get rid of a bunch of seats!

Philadelphia Flyers: If Anthony Stolarz played into your season plans in any appreciable way, well, that was bad news as a baseline.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Mike Sullivan is quick to dispel rumors the Penguins want Kris Letang to be more conservative. Why? Because he’s a good coach and he wouldn’t tell an elite defenseman to change his approach, that’s why.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks are putting a real shark tank in their rink. The question is, why haven’t they had one all along?

St. Louis Blues: If the Blues start a rebuild any time soon, something has gone horribly wrong.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Easy to see why people would be of two minds about what the Lightning can do this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: No point in rushing the team’s various good-to-very-good prospects. Pretty good NHL roster, to be honest.

Vancouver Canucks: Just control-F for “[Pause]” on this one. Trust me. That’s an important pause.

Vegas Golden Knights: Man, less discussed in all this Golden Knights stuff is how bad their AHL team is gonna be. Pretty bad I bet!

Washington Capitals: Well, you gotta add somebody on a PTO I guess.

Winnipeg Jets: I really think Kyle Connor will be a very nice player for the Jets this season.

Gold Star Award

Sign Jagr.

Minus of the Weekend

You know hockey’s back because we’re getting play-by-play tweets from beat guys about goddamn rookie tournaments.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “Freaky Styley” likes no-win situations.

TO WPG:
Duchene
Barrie

TO COL:
Little
Trouba
Conditional pick (if Little walks next season)

Signoff

I don’t like the idea of Milhouse having two spaghetti meals in one day.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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