As a 19-year-old trying to prove he belonged in the NHL, the rookie centre with the Vancouver Canucks treated the puck like a hot potato at times earlier this season, getting rid of it as soon as he could.
But as the year has progressed and he's gained the trust and confidence of both his coach and teammates in the defensive zone — the Rodney, Ont., native is often out for important faceoffs late in games — Horvat is beginning to realize some of his potential at the other end of the ice.
"I feel like I've been getting better throughout the whole season. I'm starting to get a little bit more confidence now, handling the puck a little bit more and just feeling more confident on the ice all around," Horvat said after Monday's practice at Roger Arena. "At the beginning of the year I was trying to not make too many mistakes and maybe move the puck a little bit more and give it away a little bit more. Now I feel really comfortable out there."
With 11 goals and 10 assists in 54 games after missing the early part of the season with a shoulder injury, Horvat has found good chemistry on Vancouver's fourth line, especially with veteran winger Jannik Hansen.
While many rookies often start to burn out in the latter part of the gruelling NHL season, Horvat is getting better in his first professional campaign as the Canucks continue to push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"His weight's gone up, but his fat percentage has gone down," said Vancouver head coach Willie Desjardins. "That's a sign that he's getting stronger. You can see it. He is stronger. When he accelerates on pucks he's stronger.
"It's a lot of hockey, and you worry about that. His role is a big role, but he's handling it great right now and I just hope he keeps going that way."
Hansen scored in Vancouver's 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, with Horvat and fellow rookie forward Ronalds Kenins picking up the assists.
"Once (Horvat) got a little bit of confidence his offensive game has come around and you're seeing a lot of different skills," said Hasen. "Not only faceoffs, but defensive awareness (and) now the offence is starting to kick in. He's become extremely valuable to us."
Horvat's improved play and maturity has also been noticed around the dressing room and rubbed off on some of his older teammates.
"He adds a lot of excitement. Everything is new," added Hansen. "You want to go out and give it your all, and the team feeds off that, the crowd feeds off that, and it kind of goes in a nice little circle."
Horvat has points in three of his last four outings and said he's seeing the game more now, as opposed to earlier in the season when he was simply playing it.
"When you get in that groove and you start to figure the game out a little bit more it starts to slow down for you," he said. "You start to make plays and get more confident with the puck. Things just start to open up for you and it definitely feels like that as of late."
Note: Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows said he expects to be back in the lineup Tuesday when Vancouver hosts the Philadelphia Flyers. The winger missed the game against Toronto with a groin injury.
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