Two of the top players on the Vancouver Canucks, J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat, entered the 2022 offseason with just one year remaining on their contracts.
Early in the offseason, Miller and the Canucks were far apart in contract negotiations, while it seemed clear that a Horvat deal would get done. Instead, Miller was the only one who signed a contract extension ahead of training camp and Horvat is playing this season as a pending unrestricted free agent.
Now Horvat and the Canucks are reportedly “not close” in their contract negotiations, with Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman saying they are at a “stalemate.” Friedman also dropped Sean Coutourier as a comparable for Horvat, a player whose eight-year contract extension worth $7.75 million per year just kicked in this season.
“Some Vancouverites weren’t crazy about my use of Sean Couturier as a comparable for Horvat, but anyone out there thinking the captain’s next deal is starting with a six is in a Wizard-of-Oz-style dreamland,” said Friedman in his “32 Thoughts” column earlier this week.
"I believe Bo is a number-one centre."
A $7.75 million cap hit would make Horvat the second highest-paid forward on the Canucks behind Miller’s $8 million. It would match not just Couturier but also Jason Robertson, who scored 41 goals, and Andrei Svechnikov, who scored 30 goals as a 21-year-old last season.
Couturier also doesn’t seem like the best comparable for Horvat considering Couturier is a much stronger two-way player, even winning the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the NHL in 2020. In addition, Couturier has two seasons with 76 points, 15 points higher than Horvat’s career high.
But it’s not entirely surprising that Horvat’s camp might be asking for such a significant raise — his agent views him as a first-line centre.
Pat Morris is Horvat’s agent and he appeared on Donnie and Dhali on Thursday, where he casually brought up how he sees Horvat.
“I believe Bo is a number-one centre,” said Morris. “Bo is a 1, a 1A, whatever teams would perceive him to be.”
It’s a pretty bold claim, so let’s explore it for a moment.
Horvat is not the number-one centre on the Canucks
We could look at it in terms of ice time — Horvat averaged 13:53 per game at 5-on-5, fourth among Canucks forwards behind Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, and Conor Garland. He was just ahead of Elias Pettersson.
Of course, Horvat plays in all situations and on both sides of special teams, so let’s look at total ice time — he’s still second among Canucks forwards at 19:31 per game, more than 30 seconds per game less than Miller. That’s about a minute ahead of Pettersson, but that gap will likely narrow now that Pettersson is also playing on the penalty kill.
For instance, in the first game of this season, Pettersson had more ice time than Horvat thanks to playing 20 seconds more than he did on the penalty kill, though Pettersson was still behind Miller in total ice time.
If we look at scoring, Horvat was behind both Miller and Pettersson in both goals and points — though just barely when it comes to goals. A big chunk of Horvat’s goals come on special teams, where he led the Canucks with 13 power play goals as part of the first unit.
Just looking at the Canucks, then, Horvat isn’t the number one centre. He’s not even the clearcut number two centre. Between Pettersson and Horvat, it’s more of a 2 and 2A situation, though Pettersson has the potential to be more of a 1A with Miller this season.
On the Canucks, at least, Horvat is a second-line centre who plays on the first power play unit — a very valuable player, but not a 1 or 1A like Morris suggests.
Horvat would be a second-line centre on most other NHL teams
Would Horvat be a number-one centre on a different team? It doesn’t seem likely.
Horvat finished 102nd in points among NHL forwards last season. If we limit it just to players listed at centre, Horvat was 49th — solidly in second-line territory.
We can look at an all-in-one metric like Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement. Last season, Horvat was worth 8.7 goals above a replacement-level player, which ranked 94th among NHL forwards. That’s good, leaning toward high-end second-line or low-end first-line forward, but still behind Miller, Pettersson, and Garland on the Canucks.
When narrowing that list to just centres, however, Horvat lands at 52nd. Centres are typically the best players on their lines, so the bar for being a first-line centre is set higher. Since there are 32 teams in the NHL, if Horvat is the 52nd-best centre in the league, he's a second-line centre.
Let’s be absolutely clear — Bo Horvat is a very good player and a key forward for the Canucks, particularly on the power play, but he is not a number-one centre. That’s hardly an indictment on Horvat. The vast majority of forwards in the NHL are likewise not number-one centres. It’s just not something you can say about Horvat when there’s an argument that he’s not even the number-two centre on his own team.
"Centres seem to be very valuable."
That’s an agent’s job, of course — talk up his client, emphasize the positives in his game, and negotiate the best possible contract. Even if Horvat isn’t a number-one centre, he could still command a premium price if he hits the open market as a free agent next season.
“It’s very hard to get centre icemen,” said Morris. “Centres seem to be very valuable. There’s many, many centres that have signed this summer and they’re very valuable.”
There were some massive contracts given to centres this past offseason.
Nathan Mackinnon got an eight-year deal worth $12.6 million per year, making him the highest-paid player in the NHL, but there were several other centres who got $7+ million per year: Mathew Barzal ($9.15 million), Tim Stüztle ($8.35 million), Robert Thomas ($8.125 million), Josh Norris ($7.95 million), Tage Thompson ($7.14 million), and Nazem Kadri ($7 million).
The difference between is that these centres have out-produced Horvat and most of them are significantly younger than the 27-year-old Horvat, with their teams betting on them getting even better in the coming years.
The 25-year-old Barzal has slowed down since his 85-point rookie season but he still had more points than Horvat last season and the New York Islanders are banking on him becoming the superstar he promised to be at the start of his career.
Stützle and Norris are the 1 and 1A centres for the Ottawa Senators. Norris had 35 goals last season and is 23, while Stützle just barely out-produced Horvat last season with 58 points, but he’s only 20 years old.
Thomas is the St. Louis Blues’ first-line centre and was better than a point-per-game player with 77 points in 72 games last season. He just turned 23. Thompson is the Buffalo Sabres’ first-line centre, scored 38 goals last season, and is 24.
Kadri is the only one of these centres older than Horvat at 32, but he put up 87 points in 71 games last season. Sure, it was a breakout year, well beyond his previous seasons, but it’s a big reason why he got a seven-year deal.
The truth is, if Morris wants to compare Horvat to these centres who signed this past summer, Horvat will suffer by comparison. And if Morris is drawing a parallel to Couturier as Friedman did, it’s no wonder that he and the Canucks are not close in their negotiations.