Nathan Horton says he's ready and good. He tells reporters he feels just fine. He's penciled in as the right wing on the Bruins' first line, and it's difficult not to be happy for the guy. A string of concussions has made his last nineteen months just another example of the impact brain injuries have on professional athletes across sports.
In the past, Horton likely would have played more games than he did a season ago. Thankfully, modern science has applied pressure on major sports leagues to be more proactive in their treatment of these injuries. Losing Horton certainly hurt the Bruins' chances a season ago. The first-round exit against Washington may have looked a bit different had No. 18 been floating around the offensive zone picking corners from the circles or jamming for rebounds in front of the Capitals' Braden Holtby.
Now, though, it seems like the time off, prolonged by the NHL's latest foray into destroying itself, has benefited the 27-year-old sniper. Speaking to the Boston Globe on Thursday at Ristuccia Arena, Horton said the following:
"I feel great. I've had a lot of time to work out and get back to normal. Obviously it's been tough for everyone this year. It's not the way anybody wanted it to be. But I feel great. Better than I have in a long time."
The sentiment is encouraging to an extent. The Globe reported that Horton hasn't experienced any symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Despite not signing with a European team during the lockout, he's kept on himself to stay in shape and prepare for the eventual end to the work stoppage. It's safe to assume that these skates and gym sessions likely don't happen if Horton feels any problems. So it's difficult not to take his word for it when he and his agent say he's ready to play hockey.
The truth, however, is that Horton received clearance to play last season as well. He played 46 games a year ago before Philadelphia's Tom Sesito ended his season. The Bruins eventually shut Horton down in April and headed into the playoffs knowing he would be unavailable for the length of their run. Next Saturday, the Bruins host the New York Rangers in their season opener. Jan. 19 will mark almost a full year since Horton has played in an NHL game. Under the best of circumstances, Horton will skate through the shortened season and into the playoffs without any issues related to his concussion history.
It seems naive to expect that to be the case, though. Marc Savard's similar situation is a scary reminder of the unfortunate reality of these injuries. Should Horton suffer a setback next Saturday or at any point in the season, the Bruins' depth on the right side of the ice will be tested. Behind Horton at right wing are Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Thornton. A crop of young players currently in Providence would likely produce the replacement. The common sense answer is shifting Peverley alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic. Rookie Jared Knight, the third piece of the Phil Kessel trade, figures to earn some time in this event. However, Knight's battled a groin injury this season. The problem has limited him to just four games split between South Carolina (ECHL) and Providence. The 20-year-old is among the Bruins' premier forward prospects. At this time, he is still an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Contributions from their bottom six forwards have made Boston as difficult to beat as it has been in recent years. Another set back to Horton could short circuit the Bruins' offense on several levels.
With Horton healthy, the Bruins were 31-13-2 last season. Following his injury against Philadelphia, they went 18-16-2 in the final three months of the season. His absence doesn't explain the shift entirely. It does point to his value within the Bruins lineup. Simply, the Bruins are a deeper team when Horton is at his best. Without him, they lose a dangerous offensive threat and some of the chemistry general manager Peter Chiarelli invested so heavily in maintaining.
Looking to the future, a healthy, productive season is critical for Horton. He is an unrestricted free agent after the season. Even with a strong year, it may be difficult for the Bruins to retain him given his inevitable demand for a raise and the need to re-sign Tuukka Rask.
The early reports look good for Nathan Horton and the Bruins. He arrived in Boston three summers ago as a noted underachiever, a player who many believed to lack a "heartbeart," as one still unnamed Bruin once said. Since, he's become a critical contributor to a team with visions of a second championship in three seasons. A healthy Horton has made the TD Garden one of the loudest buildings in the league these last two seasons. On the other hand, no one will forget the time a blow to his head quieted the arena in an instant.