VANCOUVER — The 2014-15 NHL season may have started for the Vancouver Canucks, but there still are decisions to be made.
At the conclusion of last season, many observers believed the team needed to get younger. The Canucks’ management also had been open about doing so.
So, signs pointed to the Canucks giving London Knights forward Bo Horvat, whom they had taken with the ninth-overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft, every chance to make the roster.
(Let’s not forget that they traded goaltender Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for that ninth selection.)
But with Vancouver being arguably the most active team in the off-season, it was apparent that the 19-year-old was in tough to earn a spot.
Especially when the Canucks acquired forward Linden Vey from the Los Angeles Kings for the 50th pick in the 2014 draft.
Vey is listed as a right-winger, but can play at centre, the same position as Horvat.
Things didn’t look like they were headed in the right direction for Horvat, as he finished without a single point at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, B.C.
Despite that, the Canucks’ management wanted to see more of Horvat, and listed him on the pre-season roster.
Canucks’ head coach Willie Desjardins was impressed, even though he only had one goal in five games.
However, they needed to be down to 23 players for their opening night roster. A decision needed to made on Horvat — either he was going to stick with the team or be re-assigned to the Knights.
Wait, not so fast.
When the Canucks visited the Edmonton Oilers for a pre-season game on Oct. 2, Horvat suffered a shoulder injury when he was hit by Oilers’ forward Tyler Pitlick at 18:18 of the first period.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, junior-aged players who are injured don’t take up a roster spot, meaning Vancouver doesn’t have to make a decision on Horvat just yet.
With Horvat out, that gave someone else the spotlight.
The Canucks were also happy with the play of Shawn Matthias at centre.
“Maybe the light came on for the coaching staff to put him in the middle,” a joking Desjardins said after Monday’s practice. “I don’t know. He played pretty well in the middle, he played better when (he was) in the middle. You’ve got to like that. Like, if you get him excited and confident, I think he can add to us. When he played in the middle, he played better.”
Yes, even more competition for Horvat.
“I think (Horvat) has played real well,” Desjardins said. “I do, I think he’s played well. He’s proven that he is sound defensively, he’s a heavier-body guy. This injury is not what he needed at this time, though. That’s a move for him because now the other guys have a step ahead and now he’s got to come back. How he comes back from that, we’ll wait to see. But what he did before, yeah, I thought he was pretty good.”
Horvat may have played well, but Desjardins is only worried about the players who are in the line-up.
“I’ve always said with the team, it’s not who is out, but the ones who are in that counts,” he said. said. “The guys who are in are the guys that have to win it for you. So, whoever it is, that group has to find a way to win.”
As well, players may exceed expectations in the pre-season, but that doesn’t mean the assessments are accurate.
“You can’t tell,” Desjardins stated. “Because if their minds aren’t in it, then you can’t judge from the pre-season because of that. It’s so competitive and so close that you have to be 100 per cent in it for us to see. We’ll see right at the start, though.
“This will be the group that we start with, We’re excited about the group. The guys have worked hard, and they’re looking ahead to the regular season. We’ll see what we’ve got. The group has worked hard.”
He got his first shot to see what the Canucks have when they visited the Calgary Flames for their season-opener on Wednesday.
The hard work paid off as Vancouver defeated the Flames, 4-2, which marked the first time it got a victory on opening night after five straight losses.
“Well, I think it’s great,” Desjardins said after the game. “Calgary plays hard like a real tough game. To come on the road and get a win, it’s always important.”
Vey was on the third line, flanked by forwards Zack Kassian and Brad Richardson. Vey finished with an assist on a goal scored by Kassian at 5:16 of the second period.
Matthias, on the other hand, failed to get on the scoresheet, and finished with a minus-2.
“I felt what was really important was that we were able to use our whole team,” Desjardins said. “Everybody played, and everybody contributed . . . and that was important.”
Horvat couldn’t contribute, and will have to prove himself again once he returns to the lineup.
NOTES: Canucks’ D Kevin Bieksa (shoulder) was a game-time decision and dressed in place of D Yannik Weber. . . . Flames F Sean Monahan (ill) also was a game-time decision and ended up playing. He finished with an assist and was plus-1. . . . Canucks’ D Alexander Edler had a minus-2 rating. . . . Vancouver forwards Henrik and Daniel Sedin combined for three points. . . . Desjardins got his first NHL coaching victory. . . . The Canucks will play host to the Edmonton Oilers in their home-opener on Saturday.
(Dickson Liong is Taking Note’s Vancouver correspondent. Follow him on Twitter at @DLLiong.)