When it comes to Bo Horvat, it’s tough for Canucks fans to contain their excitement. Though Horvat will likely start on the third line, most fans are expecting a similar progression from last season, when he started as the fourth-line centre and took on more and more responsibility as the season progressed.
It’s easy to imagine Horvat continuing his upward trajectory and stepping into a second-line role, particularly with Brandon Sutter’s ability to hold down that spot in question. It’s almost too easy to imagine that, actually: what if Horvat fails to ascend into the top-six this season? What if he plateaus? What if, heaven forbid, he takes a step back?
Are Canucks fans prepared for Horvat to have a sophomore slump? Can our hearts handle that kind of disappointment? What if Horvat is bad this season?
Look, I’m not saying I believe Horvat will have a bad season, no more than I believe that Sbisa will have a good one. I’m just saying the possibility exists and it's wise to prepare yourself for the possibility.
The highest hope for Horvat in his rookie season was that he would make the team and be a useful contributor. The bar was particularly low partly because it had been so long since the Canucks had a teenager good enough to play in the NHL.
With expectations that low, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Horvat exceeded them. His season was far better than his 25 points in 68 games would indicate and, by the playoffs, Horvat was one of the Canucks’ best forwards, tying for the team lead with 4 points in 6 games.
Horvat grew in confidence throughout his rookie year, until he was thrilling fans with end-to-end rushes, undressing defencemen with his go-to toe-drag move, and setting up his linemates with seeing-eye passes.
This season, however, the expectations are much higher and with those heightened expectations comes more potential for disappointment. At one point, the idea that Horvat would ever be a second-line centre was considered wildly optimistic in some corners. Pegging him to be the second-line centre in his second season at 20-years-old is a big jump that comes with added pressure.
Horvat specifically spoke about the sophomore slump during training camp:
I’ve heard about the sophomore slump and I’ve seen some guys have it, but for me you can’t really think about it. You have to play your game and if you think about it, your biggest downfall is going to be yourself.
This is all well and good. It will be great if he’s able to mentally handle the higher expectations. The problem is that only so much of it is under Horvat’s control.
Now that he’s not the fourth-line centre, Horvat will face more difficult competition. According to stats website Behind the Net, only two Canucks forwards faced weaker competition than Horvat last season: Derek Dorsett and Linden Vey. If he’s tasked with a shutdown role, he’ll have to regularly face the top-six forwards of the opposition, but even if he's just line-matched against other third lines, it will be a tougher test than last year.
Opposition coaches and players will also have more information about him when it comes to scouting. Video coaches will break down his shifts and isolate his tendencies, relaying them to the rest of the coaching staff and the players. Spaces that were open for him to maneuver in the past will suddenly disappear; his toe-drag move that he regularly relies on may suddenly become a predictable liability.
Additionally, Horvat posted a shooting percentage of 14% in his rookie year. While there are players able to sustain a shooting percentage that high, it’s more probable that it regresses closer to league average, which will tame his numbers a bit.
Hopefully these concerns don’t pan out and Horvat has a wonderful sophomore season. But if he doesn’t, don’t crucify him just yet.
For comparison’s sake, here are a few other two-way centres who didn’t see much progression in their sophomore years: Ryan O’Reilly followed up a 26-point rookie season with a 26-point sophomore season, albeit in fewer games. Ryan Kesler scored 23 points in 82 games; the following season, a brutal hip injury limited him to 48 games, in which he scored 16 points, about a 27-point pace over 82 games.
Then there’s Jordan Staal, who had 29 goals and 42 points in his rookie year, then just 28 points as a sophomore when his shooting percentage crashed down to 6.6%.
All this is to say that a disappointing season from Horvat doesn’t mean he’s a disappointment. It just means a player’s progression isn’t always a straight line.