You’d be hard-pressed to find a teenage skater outside the National Hockey League with a more polished two-way game than the one on display this fall in London, from Canucks prospect Bo Horvat.
Dominant in the face-off circle, uncanny in his ability to lurk in passing lanes, and with the speed and strength to overpower opponents in puck-battles; Horvat has continued to develop into an ace-in-the-hole for the Knights.
Last Friday the Knights welcomed the Erie Otters, a team led by Connor McDavid – a 16-year-old forward widely considered to possess generational talent – to the unfriendly confines of Budweiser Gardens. The Otters had won 17 of their past 18 games heading into the contest, and their top-line of McDavid, Connor Brown and Dane Fox have laid waste, consistently, to opposing defenses all season long.
With one exception: in the early going this season the Knights have had their number, and that continued last Friday as London emerged with a 4-1 victory. McDavid’s group has yet to record an even-strength point against the Knights in three games this season.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Otters’ otherwise dominant top forward group has struggled when matched up against the Knights. After all, when McDavid steps over the boards the Knights alone can answer with Horvat a centreman who has spent this fall further cementing his reputation as the most complete defensive forward in the OHL.
The Knights’ showing on November 22nd was an impressive one. London out-played their opponents in the opening 20 minutes of the contest and built a two-goal lead that they never relinquished. The Knights outshot the Otters 14-7 in the frame and recorded four scoring chances while permitting just one against. Most importantly the Knights frustrated Erie’s dynamic top-line, pinning Erie in their own end whenever McDavid and company were on the ice.
While London’s defenders were on their game against Erie, Horvat was the clear focal point of London’s defensive game plan. Whenever McDavid, Brown and Fox were put on the ice in open play, you would see #53 promptly hop over the bench too. When McDavid was sent out to take a draw, Knights coach Dale Hunter answered with Horvat.
“He’s an exceptional player,” Horvat said after the game of matching up with McDavid. “A guy his age and he's one of the best players in the league!”
As a result of shadowing McDavid, Horvat started eight shifts in the defensive zone (two of them off of icings and six “coach’s decisions”). The Canucks prospect started no shifts in the offensive end of the rink at even-strength.
"It definitely shows that Dale puts a lot of trust in me,” Horvat said, referring to Knights head coach Dale Hunter. “He puts me out there in every key situation to win that big draw and I take a lot of pride in that.”
McDavid is a force of nature on the ice, and his speed and skill with the puck are already professional grade. Horvat – who admittedly is two years McDavid’s senior - got the best of him in their matchup on Friday, however, and in particular took advantage of a relative weakness of McDavids’s game: his faceoff ability.
Horvat started the game with five straight face-off wins against McDavid, all of them clean. Horvat’s line would win the draw and move up ice, playing keep away in the offensive end. By the end of the period Horvat had essentially “chased” McDavid from the dot and Erie had wingers Connor Brown and Dane Fox begin to take draws against Horvat instead. Horvat went 7-0 in the face-off circle in the first twenty minutes and finished the night winning 16 of the 23 draws he took.
That’s not an atypical performance from Horvat to hear Knights executives tell it. “That’s just Bo being Bo. Usually he's running around 65-70% (on draws) every night,” said Knights Assistant General Manager Rob Simpson. “It's real nice for us to have. You can count on a win on your power-play or penalty-kill every time."
“The last three years he's evolved into the best (faceoff man) in the league probably," London Knights assistant Dylan Hunter told Canucks.com after Friday night’s game.
Hunter, a former OHL centerman who excelled in the faceoff circle, has seen Horvat’s improvement on draws up close. In fact, Horvat credits Hunter’s relentless drills; tactical coaching and technical modifications with helping him hone his ability in the circle.
“I used to take draws with my hands forward,” Horvat said, “Now (Dylan) Hunter has switched me to the backhand."
“He had the skill before,” Hunter told Canucks.com of Horvat’s prowess in the circle on Friday. “But we work on different ways of taking draws. I believe the most important thing is reading what the other guy is doing. I've explained to him it's almost like a chess match. It’s more about reading what your opponent is doing and not just worrying about what you're doing.”
Horvat’s studying has obviously paid off in a major way for the Knights, and last Friday it was critical to London’s success against McDavid. “You have to win as many draws as possible against (McDavid) or he'll have the puck the whole time," Horvat explained to Canucks.com.
“Maybe to have that edge on him, beating him in draws, it's a tap on the back,” continued the Canucks prospect, before adding, “but if I could be as fast as him, that would be even better!"
Horvat may not have McDavid’s speed, but what he does have is the ability to seemingly perpetually be in the right position on the ice to get the puck going the other way. On five occasions Horvat’s stick was were Erie rush chances and offensive possessions were snuffed out.
With 37 points in 24 games Horvat isn’t just shouldering a mammoth defensive burden and getting the puck going the other way, he’s been legitimately productive offensively too. Last Friday he managed a power-play goal with a rush wrist shot that beat Otter goaltender Dansk top-corner and restored London’s two goal lead:
You can see Horvat’s excellent release in that highlight, but what the video misses is what occurred beforehand. This was actually a counter-attacking goal as Horvat finished off a sequence he started, by getting back to check highly regarded Otters defenseman Adam Pelech on an odd-man rush.
“Those are the best goals to score, you make a good defensive play and it results in a goal at the other end,” Horvat said of the goal after the game, while crediting his teammates with a couple of nice passing plays to set him up.
Though the Knights centreman didn’t see any regular season action with the Canucks this past fall, this season is full of opportunity for Horvat. His team is hosting the Memorial Cup this spring and he’s likely to make Team Canada’s U20 roster for the 2014 World Junior Championships in Sweden.
As for what Horvat is working on improving? "For me I think it's just pace: my speed and my quickness and thinking the game a bit quicker. It's a lot faster (in the National Hockey League). If anything I just have to keep working on that while playing in junior, I'll go up there next year in the best shape I can. Hopefully it'll be a longer stay in Vancouver next season."
Based on the maturity of Horvat’s two-way game and the impressiveness of his overall skillset, a longer look in the National Hockey League next season seems all but inevitable.