Gary Bettman took the stage. “We have a trade to announce,” the NHL commissioner told the crowd at the home of the New Jersey Devils, the Prudential Center, back at the 2013 NHL draft. “I think you’re going to want to hear this.”
And with that the Vancouver Canucks said goodbye to their No. 1 goaltender, Cory Schneider. Squeezed by the salary cap and a tight NHL trade market, they took New Jersey’s No. 9 pick overall in return. The hometown crowd approved the deal with a burst of cheers, a rarity when Bettman is on a hockey stage. With the pick, the Canucks chose Bo Horvat, a two-way centre with the London Knights.
A year later, Schneider is on the verge of a long-term deal with the Devils after a strong season splitting time in the net with Hall of Fame-bound Martin Brodeur. Horvat spent the winter in junior hockey, including a solid showing for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship, and this week he is back in Vancouver for his second Canucks summer prospects development camp.
It’s unclear if Vancouver is any closer to seeing an NHL return on its reluctant trade of Schneider. The team, with its aging roster, wants to add some youth, and soon-to-be 23-year-old Linden Vey, a promising centre acquired by trade from Los Angeles in late June, is a likelier candidate for inclusion in the opening-day lineup. He is closer to being NHL ready than Horvat and the Canucks’ other teenaged draftees.
Still, the Canucks badly want players such as Horvat to make an impact. In an interview last week, hockey operations president Trevor Linden, speaking about the Canucks building a roster with four full-fledged lines, was quite specific, saying: “Bo Horvat is going to get an opportunity.”
After a morning practice at the University of British Columbia on Monday, 19-year-old Horvat said his main focus for the summer is to work on his skating speed, looking to get a little lighter and quicker.
“I feel like I’m close,” the six-foot, 220-pounder said after leaving the ice, sweat dripping off his nose. “I feel like I’m ready to make the leap.”
It won’t be easy. For every first-round pick such as Nathan MacKinnon who succeeds in his rookie season, there are dozens who take years to find their footing. Zack Kassian, who at 23 is the youngest regular on the Canucks roster, was drafted No. 13 by Buffalo in 2009 and played two additional seasons of junior after he was drafted and then a half season in the American Hockey League before a jump to the NHL. Vey has already played three seasons in the AHL.
If Horvat goes back for a final year of junior, the Canucks’ longer-term NHL forecast for him is as a defensive-oriented player, a third-line centre who is able to defend against the best players on other teams.
A “matchup guy,” in the words of Jim Benning, Vancouver’s general manager – a player who is physically strong and good on the faceoff dot.
“He can be a shut-down guy,” said Benning.
It will take time, suggested Benning, even after a good year in London after being drafted.
“It’s a big step from junior hockey right to the NHL,” said Benning.
“He’s an important guy for us going forward. But we don’t want to rush him. We want to make sure he’s developed properly, so there’s a foundation there, so that when he comes up and plays, he’s ready to handle the load.”