Haggerty: B's need to bring back Horton

Haggerty: B's need to bring back Horton
June 10, 2013, 1:00 am
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BOSTON – It had become something of a foregone conclusion that Nathan Horton was going to be wearing some other hockey sweater next season.

The 28-year-old Bruins right winger is hitting unrestricted free agency after the season, and is hitting the market as the Bruins hold a jam-packed roster under a salary cap ceiling that’s dropping headed into next year. So it’s clearly a case of bad timing no matter what happened this season, and the streaky regular season play and concussion history certainly weren’t working in his favor.

Watching Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin all sign big-money extensions prior to the NHL lockout must have also provided a chance for Horton to read between the lines about his potential future for the Black and Gold. The power forward ignored all of that, however, and put together a season where he remained healthy and scored 13 goals in 43 games – a 25-goal pace in a normal 82-game regular season that’s become the norm for Horton in his NHL career.

It was a strong statement that Horton was back and completely healthy, a considerable achievement lost in the second half of the NHL season when a busy second half schedule and a playoff chase overshadowed pretty much everything else.

Still, the solid showing didn’t really change Horton’s perceived fate with the Bruins very much, and it appeared there might even be some competition for Horton’s spot on a line with David Krejci and Milan Lucic when Boston was pushing for Jarome Iginla and Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline.

Good thing for the B’s that none of that happened because Horton has snapped back into top form for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and is one of the more underrated reasons why the Bruins are back in the Stanley Cup Finals. He’s second on the Bruins with seven playoff goals, has 17 points in 16 postseason games, and leads the entire playoff field with a plus-21 rating over the last six weeks.

“You can see the energy, and you can see the enthusiasm. Of course the size and the shot are the two things I like, and the skating. But Krecj [David Krejci] had a real good quote after Game 1, where he said we don't have any high-end starters,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “We have to play as a team and that's the way that we play, and I really like that quote.

“But a consequence of having that type of team from top to bottom, [you feel it] when you take a piece out there’s more of a tilt. You rely on each guy, not just one or two [players]. So [Horton] is the same way. When he’s not in [the lineup], when he’s not firing, we do have our struggles. But he’s playing real well right now.”

He’s also been a part of the best forward line in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and has used strong board-work, strength on the puck and a natural shooting touch to team with Krejci and Lucic for 19 goals and 41 points. That’s roughly 38 percent of the goals scored by the Bruins in the playoffs, and 38 percent of their team’s point output over the last three postseason rounds.

It’s reached the point where none of Horton’s streakiness and struggles in the regular season really matters anymore. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and the front office need to do whatever possible to make sure Horton re-signs with Boston prior to July 1, and that he returns to continue dominating the playoffs with Krejci and Lucic.

To Horton’s credit, he’s deflected any questions about his future until after the playoffs are over. Still, there’s little question both he and his teammates would just as soon keep him in a Black-and-Gold uniform.

“More than half of my goals are totally because of him where he made a play to set me up,” said Krejci, who leads all players with nine goals and 21 points in the postseason. “He has really elevated his game for these playoffs. Lucic too, he might not have as many points as us, but he’s been just as good in these playoffs.

“I’m just happy to be on a line with those two guys. Ever since [Horton] we’ve been together for most of the time. I can’t say enough them. They’re great friend and they’re great players, and I’m happy every time I get to step on the ice with them.”

It won’t be easy, of course. It’s a lackluster free agent class this summer, and big, strong power forwards such as Horton, Bryan Bickel and David Clarkson will be in position to have plenty of suitors. Perhaps Horton will be even more popular than any of the others when factoring in his considerable playoff success, and his relative youth of 28, just entering the prime of his hockey career. While it's probably not his first choice as a destination, sources around the league say that the Edmonton Oilers are waiting to unload a dump truck full of cash on Horton as a strong, experienced forward to pair with their young, unproven cast of stars.

The numbers are staggering when it comes to Horton, the Bruins and the playoffs since he arrived in Boston with Gregory Campbell prior to the 2010-11 Stanley Cup-winning season. The Bruins are 7-0 in the seven playoff series when Horton is healthy, and in the lineup for the Black and Gold, and it was clear how much his size, strength and ability to finish goals around the net was missing last season against the Washington Capitals.

The Bruins are 13-2 in the playoffs when Horton scores a goal, and 19-3 when he scores a point in a playoff game. In his career with the Bruins, Horton has 15 goals and 34 points along with a plus-32 rating in 37 career postseason games for the Black and Gold.

Clearly, there will be salary-cap ramifications and it’s possible the Bruins will have to trade away a player or two in order to make room for a player in Horton that could command as much as $6 million per season on the free agent market in a five or six year deal.

Still, those are numbers that can’t be ignored and can’t be walked away from. That goes doubly for a playoff team whose playoff success has been built on Horton’s Game 7 heroism and the prodigious production of his line. It’s also always possible a player like Horton will take less to remain in Boston, play in a situation where he’s clearly grown comfortable and choose the security of a long term deal in a good situation for the good, old-fashioned home town discount.

Another thing that’s plainly clear: this isn’t another Michael Ryder situation where the Bruins can afford to walk away from a player after he puts together multiple dominant playoff performances for them. The Bruins need to do whatever it takes to keep Horton in the fold, and make sure he doesn’t become a smiling playoff hero somewhere else across the NHL.