The theory behind the Canucks’ top-four centres heading into the season was to use Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle primarily in a defensive role, freeing up Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson for more offensive usage. The construction of the Canucks’ roster is a throwback to a pure top-six/bottom-six dichotomy, something that has been abandoned by some of the best teams in the NHL.
“We want to give our young players a chance to play in skilled positions on the team and in offensive situations,” said Jim Benning after free agency opened.
Unfortunately, the Canucks haven’t been able to truly test whether their throwback approach will work because the four centres have rarely been healthy at the same time.
First, Beagle missed nearly two months with a broken arm. In the same game Beagle got injured, Pettersson got concussed by Michael Matheson and was out for two weeks. Shortly after Pettersson returned, Brandon Sutter suffered an upper-body injury that sidelined him for over two months. When Sutter finally returned on January 3rd, Pettersson promptly had his knee bent sideways by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and hasn’t played since.
In total, those four centres have played just six games together, and that’s being generous and including the games in which they got injured.
The only one of those four that hasn’t missed a game this season is Horvat. Now, as Pettersson nears his return to the lineup, there’s a possibility that Horvat could miss some time as well.
Horvat took a hard hit from Zack Kassian late in the third period that caused the Canucks centre to double over in pain and take some weight off his left leg. Kassian’s knee appears to catch Horvat in the back of the left thigh, which could have caused a deep bruise or aggravated an existing injury.
Horvat stayed in the game and had an electrifying rush in overtime that seemed to suggest he was none the worse for wear. He even took his turn in the shootout, but after the game wasn’t made available to the media as he was getting treatment.
The Canucks have called up Tanner Kero from the Utica Comets as a precaution, just in case Horvat isn’t ready to play on Friday. The fact they called up Kero instead of Adam Gaudette suggests that the injury likely isn’t serious, as Gaudette would presumably be a longer term solution.
Kero was an unheralded addition to the Canucks’ system last June, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks for Michael Chaput. It was an odd trade, as Chaput was on an expiring contract; a week after the trade, he signed a two-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens and has appeared in 26 games for them this season.
Perhaps the Blackhawks simply didn’t want to pay Kero $800,000 to play in the AHL for one more season. Kero has been great for the Utica Comets, where he has 16 goals and 36 points in 43 games as their first-line centre.
As one of the few skilled centres in Utica, it would be nice to see him playing a little more with some of the Canucks’ young wingers, but that’s a minor quibble. Lukas Jasek and Jonathan Dahlen have had the longest looks on his wing among the Canucks’ prospects.
Kero has NHL experience, tallying 8 goals and 22 points in 72 games with the Blackhawks. His underlying possession statistics suggest that he’s been overmatched at the NHL level, but the Blackhawks did out-score their opponents 34-to-26 at 5-on-5 with Kero on the ice in those 72 games.
It’s likely that Kero will only get into game action if neither Horvat nor Pettersson are ready to return. It's entirely possible that Kero will be sent right back to Utica on Friday.