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Underachieving Horton has chance to blossom here

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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From the six seasons Nathan Horton spent with the Florida Panthers, one of his defining memories is among the franchise’s darkest moments. On Feb. 10, 2008, at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena, Horton spotted teammate Richard Zednik skating toward the bench, his throat bleeding, cut open by the skate of Olli Jokinen.

“It was spraying the bench,’’ Horton recalled. “I couldn’t imagine being him, thinking he was going to die. It was pretty scary.’’

Zednik would recover, but the incident stands as an unfortunate benchmark for an organization that, since advancing to the Stanley Cup finals in its third year in 1996, has faded into anonymity. The Panthers have failed to make the playoffs for nine straight seasons. In their recent history, there are no big wins, franchise players, or triumphant moments.

So it was with regret but little hesitation that Horton, upon the hiring of Dale Tallon as Florida’s general manager in May, informed Tallon that he wanted out. Tallon met his request, targeted Boston, and shipped Horton and Gregory Campbell north on June 22 for Dennis Wideman, a 2010 first-round pick, and a 2011 third-rounder.

In Horton, the No. 3 pick from the once-in-a-generation 2003 draft, the Bruins landed a power forward with 142 NHL goals. The 6-foot-2-inch, 229-pound Horton — GM Peter Chiarelli includes Eric Staal, Jarome Iginla, and Dustin Brown among his comparables — projects to be Claude Julien’s No. 1 right wing alongside Marc Savard, filling the 36-goal hole left by Phil Kessel following his trade to Toronto a year ago.

“There’s excitement when you get a guy like Horton, who’s got the skill and size that he does,’’ said Bruins president Cam Neely. “I know he’s extremely excited about coming to this team and this area.’’

However, a goal-scoring specimen supposedly entering the sweet spot of his NHL career (due $4 million annually through 2013) isn’t ditched for a down-on-his-luck defenseman without lugging some baggage. Horton has never appeared in the postseason. He is three seasons removed from his career-best 31-goal campaign. And while he has settled into a triggerman’s niche, there are observers who believe he has yet to wring all the talent out of his physical gifts.

“Horton’s talented, for sure,’’ said an NHL executive who has played against the forward. “Whether Claude can get it out of him consistently will be the big question.’’

The natural
During informal skates the last two weeks at Ristuccia Arena, it hasn’t been hard to spot Horton, who will wear No. 18. He is the one wearing the perpetual smile, often blowing by his fellow skaters with seemingly little effort.

“You see him on the ice and it doesn’t look like he’s skating hard,’’ said Dennis Seidenberg, a former Florida teammate. “But he’s just flying. He’s just so smooth. He doesn’t seem to be going that fast. But when he’s coming at you, he’s got these long, huge strides. I wish I was like that. I’m working real hard just to take one stride.’’

Horton has the template that coaches and GMs would use as a prototype. Wide shoulders. Powerful legs. Five percent body fat. Hands soft enough to take saucer passes and fire pucks upstairs.

“For players like me — and I don’t want to knock myself because I do what I do and I work hard — to watch him, it sometimes looks unfair,’’ said Campbell. “It’s like he’s got a magnet on his blade. It comes to him. He’s smart. He goes to the right places. For such a big, strong guy, he’s really smooth.’’

Innate talent made Horton, a native of Welland, Ontario (just across the border from Buffalo), one of that area’s most talked-about prospects. He is a year younger than Daniel Paille, also a Welland product. But they never played on the same youth teams because the precocious Horton skated with players two years older, including Junior B hockey with the Thorold Blackhawks.

In the 2001 Ontario Hockey League draft, after Mississauga nabbed Patrick O’Sullivan with the first overall pick, Oshawa took Horton at No. 2. After two years of playing for Bobby Orr’s former junior club (coincidentally, the Bruins legend is also his agent), Horton was taken No. 3 overall by Florida, preceded only by Marc-Andre Fleury and Staal. In the fall of 2003, the 18-year-old Horton jumped from junior to the NHL at 18.

“I know when we were younger, he was definitely a hot topic at playing in the NHL at 18 years old,’’ Paille recalled of the hometown buzz. “At that age, he had a lot of strengths. He had the size. He had the skill. He had the speed. He had everything you wanted as a player at that time. He’s obviously progressed over time.’’

As a rookie, Horton was shifted from center to right wing by then-coach Mike Keenan. He went on to record 14 goals and 8 assists in 55 games. After spending part of the lockout year in San Antonio, Florida’s AHL affiliate, Horton netted 28 goals in 2005-06. In 2006-07, Horton scored 31 goals in 82 games.

Horton’s 142 career goals put him fifth among the Class of 2003 behind Staal, Thomas Vanek, Zach Parise, and Jeff Carter. Horton isn’t afraid to go the dirty areas to bang home rebounds. But Horton’s moneymaker is his wrist shot — coming down the wing, off the left-side half-boards, from the slot. It’s a weapon the Bruins expect him to employ during even-strength situations and on the No. 1 power-play unit.

“I certainly have a lot of respect for Nathan, how good he is, how talented he is,’’ Campbell said. “I have a lot of faith that he can be — he already is a top player in the league — in that top tier of players.

“There’s not too many flaws in his game. I think people will realize that pretty soon once they see him play. It’s not only his talent. He really is a power forward, but he has the hands and plays the game so smooth. It’s pretty to watch. I think he’s really going to thrive in this environment.’’

Horton’s history in Florida might indicate otherwise.

Mediocre reputation
Last February, with the trade deadline approaching, word was out in Florida that change was coming. On Feb. 12, managing partners Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel posted a letter on the Panthers website that included the following line: “Our task moving forward is to acquire players with the attributes, skills, and qualities we want in a Panthers player.’’

That day, during a conversation regarding the partners’ letter, one Bruin pondered the greaseboard in the dressing room with the Florida lineup. Horton was out with a broken leg, sustained when Seidenberg hit him with a dump-in, but his name was still posted under the injured reserve category.

“They can start right here,’’ said the Bruin, who was friendly with some of the Panthers. He pointed at Horton’s name and said, “No heartbeat.’’

It is a label that clings to Horton like a shutdown defenseman. For all his physical gifts, he has a reputation of being a floater who takes off too many shifts.

“I can see people saying that,’’ said Chiarelli. “That’s been part of the book on him. It’s one of the reasons why he was available. He’s a terrific talent. But it was time for him to turn the page with a new organization. He needed a fresh start.’’

There are no such questions about Staal, Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, and Shea Weber, the current gems of the 2003 bonanza draft. The belief is that Horton could have achieved even more and perhaps led Florida to the playoffs had he applied a work ethic proportionate with his skills.

But it might have been unrealistic to expect playoff pushes from any of the teams during Horton’s six-year run. There have been five GMs (Keenan, Rick Dudley, Jacques Martin, Randy Sexton, Tallon) and five coaches (Keenan, Dudley, John Torchetti, Martin, Peter DeBoer). All in a region where people prefer their ice in coolers more than rinks.

“It’s tough,’’ Horton said. “There’s no stability. It was tough. It was changing all the time. Once you get used to someone, there’s a change. New GM. New coaches. New players. It’s definitely tough. My whole career there, it was like that.’’

On the ice, the Panthers had similar issues. Jokinen, who has only six playoff games on his résumé (all with Calgary), was a four-year Florida captain. At times, the Panthers had veterans such as Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, but even they couldn’t get the Panthers past the regular season.

In Boston, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Mark Recchi are the leadership group. If Horton shows any signs of flagging, it’s expected that the three captains will be among the first to inform the ex-Panther that hard work is a requirement in Boston.

“When you don’t win, there’s going to be criticism,’’ Campbell said. “Neither of us has won. Neither of us has played in games that really matter in the playoffs.

“Now’s our opportunity. This is what we’ve been playing for and trying to do in Florida. It didn’t happen.

“Here, I’m sure now that it will happen. After we get that experience, it will tell a lot of people what kind of player Nathan really is.’’

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