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Canucks' Horvat trims down, aims for roster spot

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Bo Horvat is trying to lighten up.

Not in a "Why so serious?" kind of way, mind you. The Vancouver Canucks' top prospect is trying to lose weight with the hope it will make him faster and ease the transition from junior hockey to the NHL as a 19-year-old center this season.

Horvat, who was selected by the Canucks with the ninth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, a pick acquired from the New Jersey Devils in a trade for goaltender Cory Schneider, has already dropped 6-8 pounds in less than three weeks.

"I have to get lighter," said Horvat, who was listed at 6-foot and 206 pounds for Canucks development camp. "It's not like I am overweight or anything; it's just trying to get quick, get leaner and a little bit lighter and try to work on my speed and my agility."

Bo Horvat
Center - VAN
2013-14 stats with London (OHL)
Goals: 30 | Assists: 44 | Pts: 74
Games: 54 | +/-: 20
Unlike a lot of 18-year-olds, Horvat did not have a problem dealing with the strength of NHL competition during his first training camp last season. But the pace was another story.

"I know I am big enough and I think I am strong enough to be up here," he said. "It's just [trying to] get that body fat down and get a little leaner so I can be faster. Getting my speed up in those first three strides will help."

Speed isn't the only thing standing between Horvat, who projects as more of a two-way shut-down center, and a spot on the revamped Canucks roster. Vancouver traded Selke Trophy-winning center Ryan Kesler to the Anaheim Ducks during the 2014 draft and received Nick Bonino in the package coming back to fill their second-line spot. Vancouver also traded a second-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for young center Linden Vey. They join a depth chart of centers that includes Henrik Sedin, Brad Richardson and Shawn Matthias. Several of them can play on the wing, and all are ahead of Horvat, at least for now.

"He's going to have to earn a spot and then we'll have to make some tough decisions," Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. "He's going to be a very important guy for us and we want to make sure we're developing him properly."

It's a process complicated for now by Horvat's age. Because he won't turn 20 until April 5, 2015, Horvat would have to play a fourth season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League if he doesn't earn an NHL job this fall.

Horvat, who had 30 goals and 74 points in 54 games last season, has won two OHL championships, played in the Memorial Cup three times, and represented Canada at the 2012 IIHF World Under-18 Championships and the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. Looking for positives if he returns to junior, Horvat talked about increasing his leadership role with the Knights after being an alternate captain last season.

Benning said of a return to the OHL, "It's not the end of the world." It probably won't help Horvat prepare for the NHL pace, however.

"He plays so much in London, he's out there every second or third shift and all situations, so players pace themselves," Canucks director of player development Stan Smyl said. "But when you get to the NHL it's different. Bo sees all those things, and the biggest thing we see is his pace has to pick up to keep up. He has to be quicker on the ice and quicker with his decisions, but that will come in camp."

Horvat's chance to make an impression will be limited before the Canucks have to make a decision on his status for the season. Brendan Gaunce is looking forward to a more extended look as he enters his first professional season. Selected by the Canucks with the 26th pick in the 2012 draft, Gaunce also is trying to lean out and improve his pace, but unlike Horvat he's already turned 20 and can start the season in the American Hockey League if he doesn't make the NHL roster.

Also projected as more of a two-way depth center, Gaunce had 31 goals and 72 points in 65 OHL games last season with the Belleville Bulls and Erie Otters. He finished his junior career with 103 goals and 236 points in 258 games.

Gaunce may be behind Horvat on most lists of Canucks prospects, but being an option throughout the upcoming season instead of just the beginning may give him a better chance of spending time in Vancouver. He is working hard to take advantage of it.

"My goal is the NHL [this] year and it has been since the junior season ended, so that's my mindset when I go to the gym every day, that's my mindset when I go to snack on food … I shouldn't be and I stop," said Gaunce, who was listed at 6-2, 205 for development camp. "I have done a lot more cardio this summer and I am leaner and on the ice I feel a bit quicker."

So does Horvat, and as Smyl pointed out each player has another two months before training camp to keep thinning out and improving their speed. Horvat will have less time to prove it has paid off once camp starts in September, but Smyl said he believes his time is now.

"Whenever you get those minutes you are always concerned with the pace of junior hockey and does it help him make our team in a year; I don't think so," Smyl said. "I think the best opportunity is now."

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