Until they hit the ice in Prague this fall and do some things to erase the memory of their springtime disaster against Philadelphia, the Bruins will be ensconced in the Boston sports doghouse.
After adding Nathan Horton via trade from Florida Tuesday, the club has to hope it hasn’t just added another dog to the pack.
We know what the stats say. Nathan Horton once scored 31 goals in an NHL season. We also know that his scoring total has decreased every season since. Injuries have played a part in that, as have a coaching carousel, a supporting cast that sometimes resembled an average AHL squad and the rigors of playing out the string starting in early March with little to play for.
We also know what some scouts say. There have been questions about Horton’s willingness to show intensity on a nightly basis and keep focused on the task at hand. He’s a big body at 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, but sometimes plays smaller than those measurements. He can be a power forward or he can be a power outage.
General manager Peter Chiarelli addressed those concerns about Horton during a conference call this afternoon.
“There seems to be a thread out there saying that he’s, I don’t know if you want to call it a neutral-character or whatever. What I know, what our research shows, what our due diligence shows is that he’s a good person, he competes,” said the GM. “I guess occasionally he’s … and that’s what’s grown into this thread, so to speak. But he’s a big-bodied kid. He can skate, he can shoot. He’s only 25. And he’s what we’re looking for.”
There’s no doubt there’s time for Horton to improve and mature and find that elusive level of consistency. We witnessed the transformation of Marc Savard from a one-dimensional playmaker into an effective two-way player that even could kill penalties at 30 years of age. Bruins head coach Claude Julien obviously has the knack for squeezing more out of a player that has previously been extracted. Although he would never admit it, Phil Kessel was even aided by Julien’s tutelage. By most accounts, Horton is nowhere near as aloof or stubborn as Kessel.
During Chiarelli’s reign as GM, the Bruins’ “due diligence” has been a 50-50 proposition. Boston brass obviously was counting on Michael Ryder, David Krejci, Marco Sturm and others to increase their production last season in Kessel’s absence, and instead the team was left with the league’s worst offense. They obviously didn’t see any hints that Dennis Wideman’s character, and Ryder’s also for that matter, was such that he would treat the regular season like a Hawaiian vacation and admit publicly that he couldn’t seem to get motivated enough to play non-playoff games.
There are plenty examples where the Bruins have been right about a player’s production – Tuukka Rask – and character, be it Rask and Milan Lucic’s ability to make an NHL mark at a young age or Mark Recchi’s ability to be the consummate leader in a youthful locker room.
Horton said the right things during his introductory conference call, and Chiarelli obviously has every reason to believe he has just added the type of piece that will make his team more of a threat next season. But we won’t know until he hits the ice and actually deals with the raised expectations and finds out what life is really like playing for Julien whether he’ll shake his reputation or live up to it.
That’s where the second part of this equation comes in: making sure Horton has the right environment to thrive. That starts with the Bruins not messing with their depth up the middle. It means shaking this idea that moving Savard, their best offensive player four years running (who took a cap-friendly deal to stay) for a defenseman or another winger somehow makes the Bruins better. Boston right now has the perfect combination of a great playmaker, a solid two-way performer and one of the best defensive forwards in the league (with a little offensive pizazz) manning its middle. Depending on how he fares learning Julien’s system and rounding into a three-zone player, Horton could easily fit on the right side of Savard, Krejci or Patrice Bergeron. With any of those three guys putting the puck on his stick, he should be able to hit his production goals with just a little hard work added to his natural ability.
Take Savard or either of the other two centers out of the equation, you suddenly have a ripple effect. Vladimir Sobotka, Zach Hamill or Joe Colborne is suddenly in a top-nine roll, and Tyler Seguin (Boston’s likely pick at No. 2 Friday) is asked to carry the load as a teenaged NHL rookie at center. There’s nothing wrong with starting Seguin out on the wing – with less responsibility and more of a chance to utilize his speed – alongside one of the Bruins’ three center stalwarts. And Horton would definitely benefit from playing in a forward corps that’s overflowing with talent rather than one that was compromised for the sake of upgrading a defense group that has been one of the best in the league the last two years.
Horton can also better make a positive mark in black and gold if he (along with Seguin) is insulated by the strongest leadership group possible. That, of course, starts with the return of Recchi as a free agent and continues through to Shawn Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Bergeron and even Andrew Ference. The Bruins are intent on infusing their lineup with more youth, but a truly Stanley Cup-worthy team would be best to limit the rookie influence to just Seguin, and then add as many grizzled vets as possible to the young nucleus. While guys like Krejci and Mark Stuart (if re-signed) are considered veterans, they’re still in their mid-20s and honing their skills.
The Bruins shouldn’t ask too much of Horton. In Florida, just the fact that he was one of the Panthers’ best players thrust him into a leadership role. The Bruins should tell him, “score some goals, knock some heads and leave the leading to others.” Anyone that’s tried to drive, eat and make a cell phone call knows how hard multi-tasking is. Scoring goals and playing solid defense should be enough to fill Horton’s assignment list as he starts out in a Bruins uniform.
That Wideman had obviously worn out his welcome and the Bruins were able to get a potential piece of the puzzle in return is great. That Chiarelli says he can still get one of his targeted players at this weekend’s draft without having the No. 15 pick (they pick next at 32) is excellent news as well. However, there’s only one way this trade proves to be a winner. If the Bruins provide Horton with the tools to succeed and then he plays with the passion and purpose that would make him the player the Bruins envisioned when they closed the deal with Florida Tuesday.
Otherwise, they’ll still just be a team with a lot of bark and a weak bite.