WILMINGTON, Mass. — Six NHL seasons came and went with Nathan Horton in a Florida Panthers sweater and the playoffs starting without South Florida’s entry in the league participating.

Now that trend might finally end for Horton, who got a head start on his drive to compete in postseason play by taking part in the Bruins’ first captains’ practice of the 2010-11 season some 10 days before the official opening of training camp.

“It’s definitely been tough. Seven years [without playoffs] is a long time and that’s where you want to play the most, I think, is the playoffs,” he said after the on-ice session. “When you never get there, you don’t taste it, it’s tough. It’s a new page, a new chapter and I couldn’t be more thrilled or excited to be here.”

Some newcomers to a team with an established veteran core might’ve been hesitant to report early and join his new teammates for informal sessions. Horton’s not that shy. He’s so excited, he arrived in town a week ago to start getting acclimated. Part of that is skating with his teammates, and part is chatting and joking around off the ice to get comfortable.

Horton, who came over from the Panthers in a June trade, said he decided to rent his home this season. But if all goes according to plan he should be able to buy something by the spring. If he can show the goal-scoring touch that five times has helped him surpass 20 goals in the NHL, he’ll be a mainstay for the Bruins for the duration of his contract (which runs two more years after this).

Of course, every goal-scorer needs a set-up man. This year, Horton’s helper could very well be Marc Savard, who is still property of the Bruins despite tons of rumors to the contrary this summer. Horton doesn’t want to make any assumptions about line combinations before the team has even had a chance to have one formal practice, but he knows Boston would benefit from having Savard as part of its corps of centers.

“I think obviously he’s a great player, he’s been a great player for a long time and sees the ice real well,” he said. “It’s tough to say, but obviously I would like to see him here. He’s been here for a while and he’s a great player. But there’s so many great players on this team, it’s going to be nice to come in and play with everyone.”

Horton’s best chance to succeed this year is to play with a center like Savard or David Krejci, and to stay assertive night in and night out. If his enthusiasm for simple informal skates is a sign of how he’s going to respond during games that count, he should be the type of all-around performer Boston needs.