Horton's mean streak just what Bruins need

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Horton's mean streak just what Bruins need

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com

There were moments during the middle of the long, monotonous hockey season when Nathan Horton didnt seem to be much more than a bigger, slightly more enigmatic version of Michael Ryder.

That seemed to be the case when he endured much of December and January mired in a stretch of 20 games with only one goal, and exhibited little emotional spark while the Bruins attempted to breathe life into Marc Savards game alongside Horton at the center spot.

There may have been some connection between Hortons slump and Savards struggles to find his game before another concussion knocked him out for good, but there was also little fire in Hortons belly at that point.

That has changed into a raging belly inferno since the All-Star break with Horton growing the snarling attitude and willingness to intimidate thats such an integral part of the Bruins collective team personality. He hasnt talked as much lately before and after games, but hes letting his speaking on the ice tell the bone-rattling story.

Id like to stand here and say I know whats going to happen in the playoffs, but well have to wait and see, said Claude Julien, asked what he was expecting out of Horton once the postseason bell dings. But hes come around in the second half of the year. His whole attitude and approach to the game has gotten better and better. I have no doubt in my mind that hes going to be fine.

Hes playing with an attitude, and that attitude has been with him for a while now. You saw Horton today in a game that a lot of people would have called a meaningless game. Im not worried about him. I think hes ready and excited for the playoffs.

Julien hypothesized it might be that Horton is finally adjusting to the Boston environment or growing into his role with the right kind of organization, and that he sees it with a quality Bruins team.

Horton seemed to say the exact same thing after crashing, banging and scoring out on the ice to lead the Bruins to a 3-1 victory over the Senators at TD Garden.

To play 80 games here in Boston, where hockey is the world its been a special year for me, said Horton. Ive enjoyed it. Theres some downs and some ups, and Im looking to continue the ups. I think everyone is here.

It seems Horton really started to see it when he knocked out Edmonton Oilers forward Theo Peckham with one right-handed haymaker at Rexall Place while also notching a goal, and Horton has continued ramping up for the playoffs with that attitude ever since.

Its not always about scoring. Its about being THERE and being in the play and being involved, and hard to play against, said Horton, stressing the there part of his thoughtful sentence. All the little stuff that really matters, thats what its all about. Its nice to score and its nice to help your team out. But when youre not doing that, youve got to do something to help your team. Thats what Im trying to do, and thats what Ill continue to do.

Its allowed Horton to pile up 14 goals and 25 points in his last 30 games, and paved the way for his game-winning power play goal and the extended round of fisticuffs with Zack Smith in Bostons victory over the Sens. Hortons 26th strike of the season on Saturday afternoon was a little bit of big-bodied perfection as he and Milan Lucic camped around the net, and the right wing simply pounced on a Zdeno Chara rebound near the left post.

Horton couldnt corral the puck for a quick forehand wrist snap, but calmly collected it for a backhand before flicking it into the open net little more than a minute into the second period.

It seemed to be meaningless game No. 81 of the season with the Bs playoff situation secure, but it was clearly important to goaltender Tim Thomas shooting for the NHL record for save percentage in a season.

It shouldnt have been important to Horton, but he played like Mark Recchi or Chara had already whispered in his ear that playoffs had begun.

The Horton fists started flying directly in front of the Boston bench, and Julien admitted the violent nature of the uppercuts and roundhouse rights concerned him with the playoffs only five days away.

Smith got the best of Horton in the opening seconds of the fight, but Horton kept throwing bombs rather than hugging and heading off to the penalty box. That was a pretty good indication the quit button no longer exists in Hortons game.

It happened right in front of me and I wasnt moving much and saying hopefully this ends soon and they go their own way, said Julien of a violent skirmish that left Horton with bumps and bruises along with a bloodied nose after the game. You cant take away the attitude and the approach hes had to the game. Hes playing with a burr and give him credit for that.

I didnt want to take that away from him.

One astute commenter on a Bruins message board said that there isnt a lot of Sunrise in Hortons game these days a pithy allusion to Hortons career of underachievement with a Panthers team that never made it to the playoffs.

That seems to be completely by design as Horton is recreating himself into the player everyone around him thought hed always be: a 6-foot-2, 225-pound pile of furious hockey rage on the ice with an easygoing smile and unending supply of politeness off it.

Four of Hortons seven fighting majors have taken place since the victory over the Oilers 20 games ago, and the smoldering fire has also manifested itself into a healthy intensity within his own dressing room.

Less than two weeks ago Horton sensed there was a tad too much sleepiness at a practice session following a loss, and authored resounding hits on Patrice Bergeron and Dennis Seidenberg in the corner to help intensify the drowsy proceedings.

It worked that afternoon and its been working over the last two plus months for Horton and the Bruins.

That leaves only one question: will it keep working for Horton and the Bruins in the playoffs once the lights come on?

It appears the 25-year-old isnt going to leave any of that up to chance, and is stepping away from the passivity thats dogged his hockey game in the past.

The nasty, mean and angry Horton is all over the ice these days throwing punches, trading shoves and lighting lamps, and thats exactly the guy Boston needs now that a pivotal playoff run is on the doorstep.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

Haggerty: Bruins playing it pretty safe at the NHL Draft

Haggerty: Bruins playing it pretty safe at the NHL Draft

CHICAGO – As opening nights go at the NHL Draft, Friday night was a bit of a ho-hum affair for the Boston Bruins at the United Center home of the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Bruins went the safe route by drafting a smooth, defensive-minded defenseman with the 18th overall pick when they selected Finnish product Urho Vaakenainen, and in doing so left more dynamic forwards like Kristian Vesalainen and Kailer Yamamoto still on the draft board for other teams to claim as their own. It was a bit of a curious choice given how many defensemen the Bruins already have in the prospect pipeline, but the lack of strength in the draft class seemed to lead teams to carve their own paths looking for players.

MORE: Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

The 6-foot-1, 188-pounder clearly has miles to go offensively despite his smooth skating and solid passing skills, but there’s also a consideration that the teenager has been playing in the men’s league in Finland for the last couple of seasons. It makes things a little more difficult to project for the Finn D-man, but the Bruins believe there is some upside to his offensive game given the skills, the hockey IQ and the considerable confidence that the player has in his own game.

“His gap control and skating ability are really good. He’s obviously played in the Finnish Elite League at a very young age for one and a half years now and he’s played on the big stage at the world juniors. We feel like there’s a lot of upside for a 200-foot player that gets back on pucks, and then can transition them back out. Being able to cover ice is an important part of the game, and it continues to evolve in that direction,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney, who indicated Vaakenainen will play in North America in 2018-19 after fulfilling his contractual obligations in Finland. “We tracked what he did on offense at the junior league level prior to him jumping to the elite league, and it lines up pretty well with other elite players that made the jump to that level.

“It’s a valid question and whether he gets put into those [offensive] situations this year is what we’re excited about with his [Finnish] team moving forward.”

While Vaakenainen sounded surprised the Bruins selected him after only a single meeting at the NHL scouting combine, Sweeney said that Boston’s head scout in Finland has enough history with the family to vouch for the kid’s makeup.

So while it’s far from a sexy pick and the Bruins could have tried to hit a home run with an 18th overall selection in a mediocre draft, the B’s will also get some time before anybody is ready to label the Finnish blueliner a boom or a bust.

The rest of the draft night didn’t add up to much for the B’s, however. They made the selection of Vaakenainen after strongly considering dropping down in the first round, and in doing so lost one of the better trade chips in the form of their 2017 first round pick. There were discussions with Minnesota about Marco Scandella and a few trade feelers to other clubs that might listen on a D-man, but the Bruins now have to hit the reset button on trade discussions for left-shot defensemen or top-6 left wings.

Perhaps Scandella’s $4 million per season salary was an issue for the Bruins, or maybe the Bruins didn’t want to give up their first round pick for a 27-year-old D-man coming off a so-so season with the Wild. Either way, there wasn’t enough momentum for the Bruins to get a trade done with a bevy of defensemen rumored to be available if the offer is good enough.

“I was on the record saying that we’d be offering our first round pick for target-specific players, and we did do that,” said Sweeney. “I don’t blame teams for not necessarily wanting to go through with it, so we went ahead with a player we wanted with our own pick. We continue to build what we think is a good group of guys moving forward.

“There are a couple of areas we’d like to address and get better. We’re trying to help our team currently. Certainly Brandon [Carlo] jumped into our lineup and we hope Charlie [McAvoy] will carry over what he did, and we have other players that will push. We have six returning defensemen we feel good about and we’ll certainly push from underneath, but it’s an area we’ll continue to address. We have some forwards that we also hope will come online, but we’ll never stop exploring and trying to improve our club.”

So let’s sum it all up after a week of additions and subtractions from the Original Six organization: The Bruins added a decidedly vanilla defenseman in the first round of the NHL Draft that might be a simple stay-at-home guy, and they weren’t able to muster any kind of deals for a D-man or winger to enhance the NHL roster. On the other hand, they didn’t give up much over the week as well and they didn’t do much at all to harm a solid roster that looked like they were finally on the right track pushing into the playoffs last season.

The Bruins could be in store for an action-packed Day Two of the draft on Saturday full of promising prospects and bountiful trades, but it sure feels like the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago isn’t going to be a very memorable one for the Black and Gold. 

Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

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Bruins select defenseman Urho Vaakanainen with No. 18 pick

CHICAGO – Well, the Bruins are certainly opening themselves up for a little second-guessing.

The B’s were trying to move their first-round pick, but ultimately made the selection in Finnish D-man Urho Vaakenainen, who is described by scouts as a classic stay-at-home defenseman type without much offensive upside.

MORE - Report: Bruins among several teams interested in Wild's Scandella

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Vaakenainen had a goal in six games for Team Finland at a disappointing World Junior tournament, and didn’t post anything eye-catching while playing for JYP of SM-Liiga where he appeared in 41 games, tallying two goals and four assists along with a plus/minus rating of plus-five. He spent the 2015-16 season with Blues of SM-Liiga, scoring a goal and five assists in 25 games.

Some scouting reports cast him as strictly a stay-at-home D-man with limited offensive skills while other scouting reports give him a little more credit for his two-way game and smooth puck-moving abilities without any big holes in his game.

“Has an uncanny ability to get his stick in shooting and passing lanes. Just don’t expect offense,” said Sportsnet anchor and prospect aficionado Jeff Marek leading up to the draft in one of his mock drafts. “He won’t be out there late in a game to tie it up, but you’ll love him out there protecting a lead.”

Vaakenainen said he was surprised to be taken by the Bruins given that he had just one conversation with them at the NHL Scouting Combine, and hadn’t really talked to any Bruins scouts throughout the hockey season. On the plus side, Vaakenainen said he models his game after Nashville defenseman Roman Josi and prides himself on his skating, his passing and shooting and his ability to play the two-way game.

“I think I’m a great skater…good with the puck,” said Vaakenainen. “I have a great first pass. I’m a complete package and a two-way defenseman, steady guy. My expectation was to go in the first round. I wasn’t expecting to go Boston, but the first round was my expectation. I met them at the combine, but that was it. That was the only meeting in person.”

Clearly, it remains to be seen how a young, raw prospect like Vaakenainen develops over time and there were plenty of mock drafts and scouting services that him getting selected in the first round. Still, once in a while it wouldn’t kill the Bruins to go with a player holding larger upside like Finnish power forward Kristian Vesalainen or dynamic, undersized winger Kailer Yamamoto.