Just when the Vancouver Canucks were rolling and increasing their odds of making the playoffs, the hockey gods, of course, had to step in and add yet another obstacle to that pursuit. After blocking an Anton Stralman shot in the game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, captain Bo Horvat, who leads the team in goals and faceoff percentage, hobbled off the ice and didn’t return. It was revealed the next day that he would be out for at least two weeks with a lower-body injury.
Arguably one of the most important players on the team alongside J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko, Horvat will end up missing the rest of the regular season that comes to a close on April 29 against the Edmonton Oilers. The announcement was a massive blow to the Canucks’ already slim chances of making it to the dance in May.
Having said that, the Canucks are still in a playoff race with players that don’t look like they will be giving up anytime soon. Without the services of Brock Boeser, Tanner Pearson, and Nils Hoglander (who was also announced as being out for the season on Friday), they have reeled off five straight wins and have gotten secondary offence from Alex Chiasson, Vasily Podkolzin and Brad Richardson. Basically, it’s been “next man up”. So far, that strategy has worked as they have pulled themselves to within six points of the Los Angeles Kings for third place in the Pacific Division with them having played two more games.
Now without 31-goal man Bo Horvat anchoring the second line, more players will have to step up and take on roles that they are unaccustomed to. Replacing his production over the last few months won’t be easy, even with Miller’s continued dominance and Pettersson’s rediscovered superstardom. Not to mention the plethora of faceoffs he takes (1,475) and the amount of them he wins on a regular basis (841 with a 57 percent efficiency rate). All in all, it will be impossible to replace him in the lineup. Though, that doesn’t mean fans should give up all hope of a spot in the playoffs this season. If a few players can succeed in elevated roles, they might just be able to collectively replace him until he hopefully returns for the beginning of the postseason in May.
Replacing Horvat’s Presence on the First Unit Power Play
All season long Horvat has been a massive presence on the first-unit power play with Miller, Pettersson, and Hughes. He not only leads the team in goals with 31 but also power-play markers with a career-high of 13. His office is the bumper position where he often expertly telescopes out and one-times passes from Miller who quarterbacks from the left point. Now without him there for the next two weeks or more, someone else will have to take over that position on the first unit.
Enter Podkolzin. The 20-year-old burgeoning power forward will now get a chance to continue his run of hot play on the first-unit power play after being left off it entirely for most of the season. Seen practicing there on Saturday at Scotia Barn (8 Rinks), both Pettersson and head coach Bruce Boudreau were optimistic about him being able to replace Horvat there for the time being.
“Somebody’s got to replace Bo right?” [Boudreau said.] “I don’t think anybody can replace him at that spot, because he’s very good at it and he’s great at faceoffs and retrievals but, Pods has been doing pretty well and he’s hot, so let’s see if he can continue it.”
“He has a good shot,” said Pettersson. “I mean, he’s been playing fantastic lately, so I’m happy he’s getting the minutes on the power play because he’s been deserving of it.”
Podkolzin has been successful on the power play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and international play in the past, but not usually as the bumper. His spot was often behind the net and as a net-front presence, basically what Chiasson is on that unit right now. Having said that, his hard shot and playmaking ability will probably be better utilized as the bumper rather than in front of the net or behind the goal line. With his newfound confidence and luck around the net, he might just be able to pot a few goals and keep the red hot power play going. Everyone better hope so, because scoring with the man advantage has been a major reason why the Canucks are currently on a five-game winning streak.
Who Will Take (and Win) Faceoffs?
While the hole on the power play might have a temporary fix in Podkolzin, taking and winning faceoffs is a totally different story. As of right now, the Canucks only have Miller, Richardson and Juho Lammikko as regular centermen with a faceoff percentage of over 50. The man closest to Horvat’s brilliant 57 percent is Richardson at 56.3, but he’s taken a full 1,411 fewer draws. Miller is next at 53.1 percent and Lammikko rounds out the trio at 50.9. The other two pivots who have taken more than 100 faceoffs this season are Pettersson and Jason Dickinson, but they are both at a woeful 43.8 and 43.1 percent respectively. Basically, without the captain leading the way, Boudreau will have to rely on Miller and Richardson to take every important draw.
Richardson will likely take the majority of the defensive zone faceoffs and be pressed into action more often throughout the game. He might even take on Horvat’s role of “faceoff specialist” and be thrown out there just to win a draw and then make a bee-line to the bench.
Judging by the line combinations at practice on Saturday, Pettersson will be centering the second line between Boeser, who will be returning from injury, and Conor Garland, who has finally rediscovered his scoring touch with two goals and seven points in his last five games. Without Horvat or Miller to win possession of the puck, he will have to up his game in the faceoff department or his line will be chasing play every time they are on the ice. For Pettersson to be successful, he needs to have the puck, and for that to happen, he will have to win more than 43.8 percent of his faceoffs.
As for Dickinson, who will once again be playing the wing on the fourth line with Richardson and Sheldon Dries, he hasn’t been very good at faceoffs his entire career. Tagged as the third-line center the Canucks were missing since Manny Malhotra departed in 2013, he has fallen short of those expectations this season. Though, that doesn’t mean he won’t step up when the games matter the most. If Boudreau taps him on the shoulder for a faceoff, which he probably will with Horvat’s 1,000-plus draws missing from the lineup, he needs to dig in and win almost every one of them. If he can do that and establish himself as another center option, it will make it that much easier to get by without Horvat in the lineup.
Replacing Horvat on the Penalty Kill
Before Boudreau took over in December, Horvat rarely killed penalties for former coach Travis Green. If he did, he was out there for the faceoff and then right back to the bench to be replaced by another penalty killer. Since Green was dismissed, that has changed dramatically as he has assumed a regular role on the team’s improved penalty kill. Since Dec. 6, he’s been the second-most utilized forward now that Tyler Motte is a member of the New York Rangers. He only trails Miller (1:51) in shorthanded ice time at an average of 1:30 per game.
So, in addition to the faceoff dot, the Canucks will need more forwards to step up in the penalty-killing department as well. Players like Dries and Will Lockwood might be pressed into duty as spot penalty killers until at least Pearson returns from injury. Fortunately for Boudreau, he will have a regular member in Matthew Highmore coming back as soon as Monday against the Dallas Stars. That, at least, is a small positive along with the offensive boost Boeser should provide in the top six without Horvat there.
Canucks Must Soldier On
The road will get steeper and rockier without Horvat’s presence on the roster, but the Canucks must soldier on with what they have if they hope to make the playoffs in a couple of weeks. Teams have overcome major injuries to make long runs before, so it’s not totally impossible. Though, the odds just got a whole lot slimmer. If they manage to do it, it will be quite the story, because a lot of people wrote them off at the end of March, and that was with No. 53 in the lineup.
For Horvat’s sake, let’s hope that game against the Coyotes wasn’t his last of 2021-22. With the regular season he just had, he deserves a chance to keep it going in the postseason and hopefully lead his team on a long Stanley Cup run that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.