“I have enjoyed my time here, obviously. Two out of three years I’ve been here we’ve been in the Stanley Cup and we’ve won one time. I love the guys. The team is great and it’s a fun place to play. Other than that, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Those were the words of now-former Bruins star forward and unrestricted free agent Nathan Horton, when he spoke to the media on Wednesday following Boston’s heart-wrenching Game 6 loss to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final.
Thing is, emotion aside, that’s all they were: words. He knew exactly what was going to happen.
Horton’s agent, Paul Krepelka, informed the Bruins over the weekend that his client will not be returning to the B’s.
“Nathan loved and appreciated his time in Boston, but he’s looking forward to the chance at a new beginning that’s been made available to him via free agency,” Krepelka told CSSNE.com’s Joe Haggerty on Saturday. “This was his choice. This wasn’t a monetary decision. This was the choice that Nathan thought was best for him.”
Forgive me for asking what may be a silly question, but who needs a “new beginning” after two trips to the finals in three years?
Listen, this is not a column to bash Nathan Horton on his way out of town. He’s been an instrumental piece to the puzzle, a clutch performer – just think of those three game-winners, two in Game 7s, in the 2011 postseason – a symbolic figure (anyone in Vancouver care for some Garden water?), and he seems to be a genuinely happy, friendly, and well-respected guy in the dressing room. I’m grateful for his contributions in the Spoked-B and I’ll miss watching him play here.
With the Bruins tight against a sloping salary cap, I wholeheartedly understand his desire to pass on a hometown discount and seek a big payday on the open market. After a ridiculous postseason in which he scored seven goals and totaled 19 points, along with an NHL-best plus-20 rating (the best in the playoffs since 1985) in just 22 games, the 28-year-old is well within his rights to cash in. Horton’s coming off a 6-year deal worth $24 million, the last season of which he earned $5.5 million. If there’s a raise in his future, particularly given his history with concussions and the unpredictability of those arising again going forward, he should chase it.
But let’s go back to his agent’s comments: “He’s looking forward to the chance at a new beginning … this wasn’t a monetary decision.”
There's an obvious question here, one we may not have an answer to any time soon: What the heck happened behind the scenes in Boston that has him unwilling to even negotiate with Peter Chiarelli and company? It’s odd and seemingly unnecessary. A cursory negotiation avoids this whole discussion and certainly doesn’t prevent him from bolting for more dough.
In separate end-of-the-year press conferences, both the B’s general manager and team president Cam Neely expressed an interest in bringing the dynamic winger back. During the Stanley Cup Final, Horton echoed the same sentiment to the media. Chiarelli had reason to be caught off-guard when he received the news.
So, again, what happened? Well, there are a few theories.
Was there a rift with management?
Some have speculated that Horton was unhappy he had to prove himself worthy of an extension in the playoffs, rather than being given the opportunity to work out a new deal during the regular season.
Prior to his strong finish I didn’t think the Bruins would make much of an effort to re-sign Horton. Compared to expectation, he was terrible during the abbreviated regular season (43 games, 13 goals, 9 assists, 22 points, +1). The former third overall pick in 2003 was remarkably inconsistent and often appeared to be floating around the ice throughout the season, not the first time he’s received such criticism in his nine-year career. If he wanted to go looking for $6 million annually, then my feeling was thanks for your time, and good luck.
It’s a bit of a confusing year for GMs. With the salary cap taking a $5.9 million nosedive before likely jumping right back up in the near-future, teams have to carefully assess who’s a priority and what kind of wiggle room there is financially. They can’t simply throw money around, especially with Tuukka Rask in line for a hefty contract.
That said, whether by trading a bad contract or other means, the Bruins could have found room to re-sign Horton this offseason, and not just for a reduced rate. He didn’t even allow them to try.
Too much media scrutiny?
No matter the sport, athletes in Boston are under the microscope. When you play well, you’re lauded. When you don’t, you’re crucified.
Since his trade to the Bruins with Gregory Campbell back on June 22, 2010, Horton’s been a perfect example of this. He’s beloved for the 15 goals, 36 points, and plus-31 rating he compiled in 43 playoff games in Boston, but his effort has also been questioned numerous times during the regular season, despite 56 goals, 107 points, and a plus-30 rating over 169 contests. Odds are he didn’t deal with that treatment during six playoff-less seasons in Sunrise, Florida.
Plus, regardless of what we in the media advised, B’s coach Claude Julien stayed loyal to him. Tyler Seguin, Jaromir Jagr, and Milan Lucic all took turns on the team’s third line. Horton was consistently a top-6 forward.
When he eventually inks somewhere after free agency opens on July 5, we’ll learn if this theory of insecurity has any merit. If he signs in a comparable hockey market, it’s a non-issue. If he winds up in another Panthers-like situation with big money and perhaps no real opportunity to win, that will speak volumes.
Is there an ego problem?
This notion is something of a reach, but not implausible.
In Florida, Horton was consistently the guy. Though he never amassed more than 62 points in a season, he was regularly among his team's leaders in both goals and points.
In Boston, there was plenty of spotlight to go around and it rarely shined on the right wing outside of the playoffs.
Horton’s a very good player, maybe great. He’s no superstar. He may have looked like one at times while playing with David Krejci and Lucic because they formed one of the most deadly lines in hockey, but he didn’t do it alone. You might say he’s a proven complementary piece, not the guy you nab to carry your club.
No matter the reason, he’s gone.
Horton was a great fit in Boston and Chiarelli will have his work cut out for him to maintain line chemistry. Maybe that answer’s in-house, though it doesn’t appear to be, or perhaps it will come in the form of someone like Vincent Lecavalier, a quick and sure way to make fans forget about that smiling guy in the number 18 jersey.
In the meantime, let’s be thankful for the memories, and commend Horton for playing through incredible shoulder pain that will result in offseason surgery. It’s disappointing that he won’t be in a Bruins sweater next season, but understandable. Big money and lots of security await.
If only that is the reason Horton left. Penny for your thoughts, Nate?
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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