Canucks in 2023: What will happen to Horvat on an expiring contract?

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VANCOUVER – Based on the Vancouver Canucks’ first 33 National Hockey League games, predictions for 2023 are fairly obvious.

They’re going to continue to improve their defensive play incrementally while scoring piles of goals and win enough games to make the playoffs after starting the season 0-5-2. Or they’re going to trade half the team, fire the coach and sneak into the Connor Bedard lottery.

We will boldly predict one thing: Canucks captain Bo Horvat will soar past 40 goals and challenge 50. For someone.

This is what happens when you try peering into a crystal ball on a team that has lost seven games after leading by two or more goals, won 11 others despite trailing, defended for large stretches like ice cream against the sun but still scored enough to climb back to 16-15-3 in the standings as they open a two-game trip against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.

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Elias Pettersson got out of his sick bed last week to produce a five-point game against the Seattle Kraken, and Horvat has had consecutive four-point games since then against the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks.

The offensive talent on the Canucks is undeniable. Given how badly they’ve defended leads, how poorly star goalie Thatcher Demko started the season before getting hurt Dec. 1 (putting the Canucks in the hands of career minor-leaguer Spencer Martin), the dysfunction between coach Bruce Boudreau and president Jim Rutherford, injuries and all the drama surrounding the team, it’s not hard to imagine a formidable team in 2023 if the organization can just sort a couple of problems.

This is, after all, largely the same group that managed a 32-15-10 sprint to the finish line last season under Boudreau and then added in the summer free agents Andrei Kuzmenko (30 points in 33 games) and Ilya Mikheyev (12 goals, 22 points in 31).

General manager Patrik Allvin also made a good trade in October for Carolina defenceman Ethan Bear, accepting as a throw-in in the deal journeyman forward Lane Pederson, who is now also in the Vancouver lineup playing alongside Pettersson.

You can argue – and many people do – that the Canucks should have broken up their core last summer and got on with some form of rebuild. But on a player-by-player basis, Allvin has gotten most of his decisions right.

What the organization got wrong in hindsight was prioritizing re-signing J.T. Miller ahead of Horvat before the season, which tightened the budget on Horvat while management believed they had secured in Miller the Canucks’ No. 1 centre for years to come.

But Miller started poorly and played himself back to left wing, while Horvat channelled Pavel Bure and began scoring roughly once a night. The 27-year-old on an expiring contract has 26 goals in 34 games, and what looked like a difference of opinion between management and player on an extension when the season began, now feels like an insurmountable gulf.

This is why the Canucks’ top priority in 2023 – at least until the March 3 trade deadline – is to either bridge the divide and re-sign Horvat at a sensible number or make the franchise’s biggest in-season trade since 1999 when former GM Brian Burke finally granted Bure his years-long wish to get out of Vancouver.

The Canucks received in that blockbuster trade a young, impact defenceman in Ed Jovanovski.

They would do well to get a comparable return for Horvat, but the Canucks are dealing from a sub-optimal position with their captain unsigned beyond this season and Allvin trapped by the trade deadline. If a trade occurs, it will be regime-defining — a deal that could set the franchise up or back for years.

The Horvat saga impacts Priority No. 2, which is re-signing Kuzmenko before the deadline so the wonderfully talented and engaging Russian isn’t one-and-done as a Canuck after choosing them over 31 other teams last summer as a free agent from the Kontinental Hockey League.

Kuzmenko, 26, has been an offensive dynamo while trying to pick up the 200-foot North American game as quickly as he is learning English. The Canucks maneuvered themselves into a corner on Horvat; they can’t afford to lose another prime top-six forward in Kuzmenko.

Agent Dan Milstein has said he may need the full season to determine a value on Kuzmenko as a potential UFA. But Allvin, despite his strong relationship with Milstein, can’t take that chance for an asset this valuable. If the winger isn’t re-signed by the deadline, he could become the Canucks’ second-biggest in-season trade since Bure.

Other Canuck priorities for 2023, besides winning games, include:

• Getting Demko healthy and back to superior form after the 27-year-old returned from off-season surgery by starting 3-10-2 with an .883 save percentage.

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• Making the best deal they can on Brock Boeser, who needs a fresh start elsewhere and whose agent, Ben Hankinson, has been working on finding a trading partner.

• Let the situation play out with Boudreau but then, for goodness sake, make a clear decision on the coach so whoever it is can do his job with the confidence of management’s support.

• Re-establish Miller as a centre because that’s the only way his seven-year, $56-million contract can work.

• Continue to explore exits on inefficient contracts for players like Tyler Myers, Conor Garland and Tanner Pearson.

• Improve the defence. Rinse, repeat.

One way or another, this is going to be a starkly different Canucks team when the season ends.

One way or another? Sounds like the title of their season.

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