Don’t Worry, Bo Happy
12:44 PM EST on February 8, 2023
Brand-new Islander Bo Horvat's time in New York began with a smart-ass comment from GM Lou Lamoriello. When asked for the figures on the extension Horvat signed immediately after his trade from Vancouver, Lou replied, "All I can tell you is it's too long and too much money."
The actual numbers are reportedly eight years, $68 million. While Lou's technically making a joke here in the sense that he's saying something he hopes people will laugh at, this brief exchange does actually tell you a couple things about the 2023 Islanders: 1) They might need a GM who's a little less burned out on the modern NHL, and 2) Bo Horvat has an uphill skate to try to prove he's worth what the team hopes he is. (“He’s not wrong,” the new guy gamely replied when asked about this comment.)
The top scorer for the flailing Canucks this year, and the leader of that team since the retirement of the Sedins, was getting ready to test free agency but instead got sent away from the only NHL city he'd ever known at the end of January. The Islanders gave up a protected first-rounder, a once-promising but now mostly underwhelming 25-year-old forward in Anthony Beauvillier, and 2021 second-rounder Aatu Räty.
That was maybe a slight overpay for an expiring contract, especially when the Isles weren't just one piece away from Cup contention. But with the extension, the Islanders have made Horvat one of their most critical pieces for the next decade. And even if Lamoriello wants to whine about the terms, he did need to do something. Back-to-back surprise trips to conference finals in 2020 and 2021 significantly raised expectations for what had been a mostly directionless franchise, but last year was misery, and this year the Isles have lacked any kind of scoring inspiration and have felt their once-stout defense start to buckle. Their chances of getting back into the playoffs, while not inconceivable, will require a major run down the stretch.
Realistically, grabbing Horvat with 30 games left to play is probably the best stab Lou could make. At the very least, nobody else on the market has scored more goals than him this season. While the fact that he's already reached a career high should give people pause about his future outlook, the Islanders were (and maybe still are) desperately short on skilled finishers and stand to benefit from the ripple effect of getting his dangerous stick on the ice for 20 minutes a game. Additionally, Horvat wins faceoffs, contributes on defense, and seems to be the kind of hard-working teammate everybody likes to have around. His only sin is that he's not as good as, like, Leon Draisaitl, and even though the big contract is probably about the going rate for a top-line center, it's natural for GMs to feel antsy about committing so completely to someone who's not quite a guaranteed superstar.
That said, there will be time for pessimism later. After months of trying to claw their way to low-scoring victories and failing to make an impact on the standings, the Islanders are genuinely trying to improve. Thanks to the lift provided by Horvat, they can in fact ice a formidable top six, and while it'd be a stretch to say that Islanders 2.0 have blown up their competition in their first two games since the break, they did secure a crucial four points with a tight win over the Flyers on Monday and a more relaxing takedown of the Kraken the following night.
"I feel like the Islanders haven’t had a spark like this in a while,” top forward Mat Barzal said after the Horvat signing, and you could feel it on the Island in Bo's home debut. The Isles started strong and let their most valuable player, Ilya Sorokin, do the rest in net, picking up a breezy 4-0 shutout marked by Horvat's first NHL goal in a jersey without a whale on it. (Don't get pedantic with me here.) In what the Isles certainly hope is a sample of what's to come, Horvat aggressively chased the puck after getting kicked out of the circle on an offensive zone faceoff, helped Barzal pick it up, and then skated to the slot to finish a pass from his new winger. The fans loved it.
"I haven't had a chant like that in a building, that loud, I don't think ever, so that was pretty amazing." Horvat said afterward. Given that his best moments as a Canuck came in the 2020 playoff bubble, I believe him.
This is a pretty good post-trade feeling, even if Lou's still grumpy about it. Instead of hopping in the tank for Connor Bedard, the Isles brought in a hot scorer and a good dude that their supporters can get behind. They're signaling their intentions to challenge Buffalo, Washington, and Pittsburgh for one of the two wild card spots. A lot of ground remains to make up, and the lifelessness of this team's January can't entirely be shaken off by the cometh of one iceman. But having Bo Horvat is better than not having him.
Maybe six years down the road, a 33-year-old Horvat is putting up third-line production and the echoes of Lamoriello's "too long and too much money" haunt whatever succeeds sports talk radio after The Unspeakable Flood Of 2027. At least for now, though, I say to that: Whatever, man. That probably won't be Lou's problem by then, and it definitely won't be mine.
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