Nathan Horton Dropping The Ball In Contract Year

Nathan Horton of the Boston Bruins (Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE)
Nathan Horton may be nearing his final days as a Boston Bruin. (Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE)

A big part of the mythology of free agency in professional sports is the idea that athletes put up large numbers in the final year of a contract, thus incurring an even bigger payday on their next deal. And in what has been a disappointing 2013 to date, Nathan Horton is doing his finest to dispel that myth.

Nathan Horton, The Good

First of all, and speaking of mythology, let’s not forget that up to this point, Nathan Horton’s time in Boston has had some legen (wait for it) dary moments. Bruins fans need not be reminded of these two highlights on his resume, but let’s check them out anyway:

Horton, of course, also scored the Game 7 winner in the Eastern Conference Final that year, and totaled 8 goals and 9 assists in 21 games during that playoff run. In the process, he made Peter Chiarelli look like an absolute genius for clawing him away from the Panthers (along with Gregory Campbell) in exchange for Dennis Wideman.

At that point, he certainly appeared to be the embodiment of the kind of player he was projected to be when selected 3rd overall in the 2003 NHL Draft – a big, physical sniper, the kind of power forward that most teams chase but rarely are able to find. As a Bruin, he would consistently be the guy who had scored 30 once in the past (while flirting with that mark on 3 other occasions), the perfect line mate for David Krecji and fellow big man Milan Lucic.

Nathan Horton, The Not So Great

Unfortunately, Nathan Horton went from playoff hero to playoff rallying cry in Game 3 of the Final, after being severely concussed on a late hit by Aaron Rome. He would miss the rest of the series against Vancouver, and was only able to suit up in 46 games in 2011-12, scoring 17 goals and 15 assists while dealing with post-concussion symptoms.

In 2013 – after being cleared to play back in September – Horton resumed his duties on the Bruins so-called top line once the shortened season got under way, a unit that has been largely underwhelming. While Lucic’s struggles have been explored here, Horton’s lack of performance remains more of a mystery, especially in light of his aforementioned and impending unrestricted free agent status.

In 41 games, Horton has scored a decent 13 goals, while only chipping in 9 assists. That would put him on pace for 26 goals over the course of an 82 game season, but only 44 total points, which would be a career low. Not the benchmark you want to reach when looking to boost your earning potential.

Nathan Horton & Some Fancier Stats

Nathan Horton  (Icon SMI)
Nathan Horton (Icon SMI)

Having said that, Horton is shooting the puck with great regularity, posting 112 shots on goal. At that rate, he would best his previous career high set in 2006-07 (217). The fact that he’s shooting a full 30 points below his career shooting percentage of 14.6% (currently sitting on 11.6%) suggests that he could have been to set a career high pace in goals, had more pucks found the back of the net.

5 on 5, Horton actually leads the Bruins in goals with 13, a mark achieved with an average shot distance of 31.9, which ranks him 8th among Bruins forwards. This may lend to the theory that Horton’s shots haven’t been of the utmost quality & danger, as he is 2nd only to Tyler Seguin in shots saved with 88. Horton might be better served by using his size and speed to get himself into a position to score as seen above in the 2OT game vs Montreal, giving him more tap in birdie attempts than eagle putts from the edge of the green.

What’s really killing Horton this year – and the team at large – is power play production. 5 on 4, Horton has scored 0 goals, and has only posted 9 shots. 9 SHOTS. Newcomer Jaromir Jagr, on the other hand, has scored 5 PPG this season on 31 shots, while coming in a full 13 years older than Horton.

Nathan Horton, Moving Forward

This season, Nathan Horton is raking in a cool $5.5 million, and despite all of the above, he remains in line to cash in big this summer. Many free agent to-be lists place him near the top in terms of attractive targets, regardless of the fact that he is tracking for a career low in points. Horton’s production, or lack thereof, isn’t a situation that has developed in a vacuum, and the whole line has under performed. The fact that Krejci and Lucic have combined for just 15 goals between them certainly isn’t helping to boost Horton’s assist totals, which are usually in the 25-35 range.

The reality is that players of his ilk are at a premium in today’s NHL, and at his age, his best years should be upon him (health permitting.)

At this point, it would appear as though Horton and the Bruins are about to part ways, and that’s too bad. Horton does seem to have the ability to click with his teammates both on and off the ice, and, as noted above, he has placed himself firmly within the annals of Bruins lore based on his 2011 performance. But with duck boat loads of money tied up elsewhere (and with Tuukka yet to sign and a new contract for Bergeron on the horizon), his spot on the roster will be filled with a more economical option (enter the Soderberg.)

One can only hope that Horton has another magical playoff run in him, potentially capping off his time in Boston with the opportunity to be on the ice when the Cup is raised.

End note: After having previously spent 4 summers in Maine and having visited and fallen in love with Boston during that time, in many ways I think of the city as my hockey home. And when Rich Peverley brought the Stanley Cup to Guelph (his hometown and my current city) in July of 2011, it was a great joy for me to join a throng of Canadian Bruins fan who showed up to share in the joys of that victory. One of the ongoing and tangible benefits of writing about the Bruins is the ability to connect with some fine folks from Boston. Please know that you are all in my thoughts and prayers after the events that took place on April 15th, and hopefully this game that we all love will be a welcome distraction from this terrible tragedy.

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