What Can We Expect From Nathan Horton?

There are two ways of looking at a situation.  And if said situation is complicated in the least, there are more than that.

Suppose I told you that Boston's major offseason trade involved the Bruins picking up a guy whose goal scoring totals have declined three straight years, who has missed 32 games in the last two seasons, was a minus player the last two years, and to get him, they traded a defenseman who led the team in points during the playoffs, had a higher GVT than Zdeno Chara in 2008-9 and they threw in the 15th overall draft pick to boot. 

Now, suppose I told you that Boston's major offseason trade involved the Bruins picking up a guy who has scored 20 goals for five straight years, just turned 25 years old, was the 3rd overall pick in the 2003 draft, was the plus-minus leader for the Panthers last year, among players who played at least 40 games, and to get him, they gave away a defenseman who was a -14 player last year, was booed at home on several occasions, and threw in a mid-first round pick to get the deal done.

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last several months (and if so, welcome back!), you know that I'm referring to the trade that sent Nathan Horton and Greg Campbell to Boston, in exchange for Dennis Wideman and first and third round picks.  And every one of those statements above is both true and verifiable. 

The trade itself was an interesting one.  Usually, when teams make trades involving experienced players, they are trading known commodities.  However, in this case, there's a good argument to be made that neither team was all that sure what they were getting.  Yes, Horton has been a consistent 20 goal scorer, with a high of 31, but there's long been a sense that he wasn't living up to his potential.  Wideman has vacillated between excellent and awful so much that there's some question as to what his value really is.  In 2008-9, Wideman played like a Norris Trophy contender.  Then, from October to March of last season, he was awful, then picked it up, and played well in the playoffs.

Wideman isn't important to us at this point.  He's gone, and as the Panthers are not only rebuilding, but play in another division, it seems unlikely that he's going to come back to haunt the Bruins in any meaningful way.  So, we'll wish him well and move on. 

What we do care about is this: what can Nathan Horton bring to the Black n' Gold?

Let's look at Horton in a couple different ways.  First, statistically, because I'm a nerd at heart.  Horton's shooting percentage was 12.6% last year.  Not bad.  That would have placed him second on the Bruins, behind Miroslav Satan's 15.3%.  (A side note: you know who actually was second?  Milan Lucic, who had just 9 goals.  Looch, I'd like to introduce you to a man named Jim Corsi.  He can help.)  Here's the thing, though: that 12.6% was the lowest of his career.  In a related note, his 20 goals were the lowest since his rookie season.  His career average is 14.8%.  Just for kicks, let's assume that he posts that 14.8% shooting percentage, and let's give him an 82 game season (not a stretch: he played 82 games in 06-07 and 07-08), with the same shot rate he had last season.  That comes out to 30 goals. 

Thus, by applying nothing more than some regression to the mean, and assuming good health, Horton becomes a 30 goal scorer. And that estimate might be low.  The stat minded among you should check out these two great articles by Behind the Net: here and here.  If math isn't your thing, just be aware that there is ample evidence to suggest that Horton's a far better shooter than he gets credit for.

Next, psychologically.  Prior to being traded to Boston, Horton was on the block in Florida on and off since 2006.  Then last year, he was moved from right wing to center, a switch he wasn't altogether comfortable with.  He also had 5 different coaches in Florida.  It's not hard to understand why he was unhappy there. Going to a more stable team in a city that actually gives a damn about hockey should help him. And yes, I'm aware of the seeming irony of talking about how trade rumors can make a player unhappy when referring to a likely linemate of Marc Savard.

Finally, his teammates.  Horton was typically centered by Stephen Weiss in Florida.  Weiss is not a bad center, by any means, but he's not an offensive dynamo.  His career high in assists is 47 (set in 08-09), and he's been a regular for 7 years now.  Marc Savard is, by any measure, one of the best passers in the league, and it is likely that he will be centering Horton's line.  Horton should be getting service from Savvy that, with all due respect to Weiss, is a heck of a lot better than he's been used to.  Even if he doesn't, it's worth noting that both David Krejci (51 in 08-09) and Patrice Bergeron (48 in 06-07) have career highs in assists that exceed those posted by Weiss. 

Let's go back to the numbers.  Horton's career high in shooting percentage is 17.3%, which is not only an excellent number, but it's not a fluke; he's done it twice, and had came close in 08-09 (16.8%).  Let's assume that a more positive environment helps him stay happy, healthy and focused, and that playing with Savard makes him more productive.  We'll use that 17.3% shooting as a baseline.  Let's assume he takes 2.6 shots per game (a reasonable estimate, since last year, he took 2.45 on the slow-paced Panthers and has been as high as 2.65).  Over an 82 game season, that comes out to 37 goals. 

37 goals.  I don't have to tell you that would have led the Bruins by a wide margin last season.  And the year before that.  And the year before that...in fact, that would be the highest total by a Bruin since Glen Murray found the back of the net 44 times in 2002-3. 

Just to let our imaginations wander for a moment, let's try to imagine a best case scenario.  (A worst case scenario is easy: Horton tears an ACL in his first game and we don't see him again until 2011....let us never speak of this again.)  Let's assume that playing with Savard lights a fire under Horton, and he's both more accurate at putting pucks on the net than we've ever seen before, and he's more prolific than he's been.  The Claude Julien Bruins are not really known for forwards who pile up massive shot numbers (Alexander Ovechkin led the NHL in shots last year with a whopping 368 in 72 games - 5.1 per game, and only Marco Sturm was more than halfway there, with 2.67).  However, we may have one useful reference point.  There was one particularly offensively minded right winger, who played with Savard, who was given the green light to shoot at will, and did so.  In 08-09, Phil Kessel had 232 shots in 70 games, an average of 3.3 per game.  Let's give Horton those same 3.3 shots per game.  Shooting percentage will suffer with more shots, but we're now assuming that Horton was being held back, and is about to be unleashed.  Take those 3.3 shots per game, over 82 games, give Horton a bump in shooting percentage to 17.5%, and what do we get? 

47 goals.  

That's certainly a starry eyed projection; the list of players with a shooting percentage over 17 with 3 shots per game is a very small one, but while unlikely, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

I don't think any of the assumptions here are unreasonable, though I worry most about his ability to stay on the ice.  However, 30 goals looks quite likely if he just stays healthy, and if everything falls into place, the sky remains the limit for Horton.

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