Bruins’ Playmakers Could Help Nathan Horton Take Game to Next Level

Bruins' Playmakers Could Help Nathan Horton Take Game to Next Level The Bruins have lacked a true sniper since Phil Kessel was traded to Toronto last September.

That’s never a good situation to have, but it’s especially frustrating as long as the club has one of the top playmakers in the league on its payroll in Marc Savard.

Enter Nathan Horton. The Bruins acquired the talented forward to help fill that void, ending a lengthy search for a scorer with size for the top line.

“I’ve been trying for two and a half years to get Nathan,” said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli after the June trade that sent Dennis Wideman and a first-round pick to Florida for Horton and Gregory Campbell. “He’s a big, strong forward, and we lost a scoring forward in Phil [Kessel], and finally he became available for a variety of reasons. … We got him. He fits the size I’ve been looking to get and he fits the shooting.”

Horton gives the Bruins offense an obvious boost. But will his presence be enough to get Boston back on track after finishing dead last in the league in scoring in 2009-10?

That’s a lot to ask of anyone. Horton, 25, has been a consistent scorer since coming into the league at 18 after being taken third overall in the 2003 draft and has topped the 20-goal mark in each of the past five seasons. But he’s only reached 30 goals once, with a career-high 31 back in 2006-07. The Bruins, who had had just two 30-goal scorers since the lockout (Kessel with 36 in 2008-09 and Patrice Bergeron with 31 in 2005-06), will need Horton to return to that level and have hopes that he can even exceed it.

Chiarelli told the team’s website at the draft in Los Angeles that “we feel [Horton] can be a 40-goal scorer.” The Bruins haven’t had anyone reach 40 goals since Glen Murray scored 44 in 2002-03, but Savard has centered a pair of 50-goal men in Jarome Iginla in Calgary and Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta, as well as skating with Kessel for his breakout campaign in 2008-09.

Horton played with some solid playmakers with the Panthers, who featured the likes of Stephen Weiss, Olli Jokinen and David Booth during Horton’s tenure in Florida, but the Panthers’ lack of depth down the middle forced them to use Horton at center at times. And he’s never had a chance to skate with a truly elite setup man like Savard or on a team that boasts three legit top centers with David Krejci and Bergeron also on hand.

“I think I’m just a better fit on the wing,” said Horton, a right-handed shot. “I think that’s perfect because they have some pretty good centermen on the team already, so that works out well.”

Having Horton fill the void for a top-line scoring wing could also work out well for the rest of the lineup. His presence pushes players like Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder into more secondary roles. They excelled two years ago skating with Krejci while the top line of Savard, Kessel and Milan Lucic drew the bulk of opposition’s defensive attention. That helped Boston finish second in the league in scoring that year.

A bounce-back year for both of them could come with reduced expectations on a lower line, and the presence of a legitimate threat on the first line should also open things up for mismatches against Bergeron’s line as well as easing the pressure on Tyler Seguin to produce right away.

The Bruins’ scoring woes last year could also be traced to an ineffective power play that finished 23rd in the league at 16.6 percent. Much of that was due to Savard’s injuries, as the Bruins really struggled with him out of the lineup (9.7 percent in games without him). A healthy Savard should restore the power play to respectability, but adding Horton will help as well. Horton has 37 career power-play goals, including seven last year in 65 games.

The Bruins will count on Horton to finish chances at even strength as well. To do that, he’ll need to make more consistent use of his 6-foot-2, 229-pound frame. He had a career-low 34 hits last year, but did have 95 hits in 2008-09 and 81 the previous year. That 2007-08 campaign was also the last time he dropped the gloves, picking up three of his six career fighting majors that season.

The Bruins don’t need him brawling, especially if he ends up having Lucic on his opposite wing to that care of the rough stuff on that line. But they do need him to finish his hits on the forecheck to force turnovers and to drive to the net to create havoc in front.

Horton understands the criticisms he’s heard over the years for his lack of consistent intensity, and vowed to take a more aggressive approach with the Bruins.

“When I’m on my game, I’m more involved in the play, and that’s what I plan to do when I come to Boston,” said Horton the day of the trade. “I definitely want to be more physical. All around, I want to be a better player. I think I have more to give. I’ll be working pretty hard this summer. I want to come in the best shape. I think I’m just excited for a change. It's going to be great. I think it's going to work out good.”

At least one of his new teammates is confident that Horton will blossom in Boston.

“Well, I see a young gentleman whose potential has been untapped, really,” said Mark Recchi. “I think part of is, I don’t think he’s been in the greatest place for development. I think [Florida has] always been kind of floundering around. I think the Boston sports market is going to be tremendous for him.

“I think he really wants to be a good player,” added Recchi. “I think he’s really excited to get this opportunity to come here. He’s a tough kid. He can score, he can pass. This kid is just pure talent. We just have to get it out [of him] on a more consistent basis. I believe that if you surround him with the right people and he’s willing to learn to be effective then he’s going to be a great fit. He can be a huge factor for our hockey club. It sounds like he’s willing and able to come in here and get better and learn and continue to grow as a player.”

Adding Horton won’t solve all of Boston’s scoring problems, but it should certainly be a step in the right direction.

NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.

Saturday, Aug. 14: Will this be the last season in Boston for Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Monday, Aug. 16: Will the Bruins’ fourth line be worth the money?