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X-Factors: Nathan Horton

08.26.10 at 12:29 am ET
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Horton is glad to be in Boston, where his numbers and chance at a Cup should go way up (John Vu photo)

Horton is glad to be in Boston, where his numbers and chance at a Cup should go way up (John Vu photo)

Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their “X-factor” status entering the season. So far, we’ve taken a look at Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, and the goaltending position. Up next is Nathan Horton, who is undoubtedly primed for a big season, but is there a point at which placing huge expectations on a top player can become detrimental?

The definition of “X-factor” could be called into question here given that Horton is expected to be a first-line winger and potentially the team’s top scorer. That certainly doesn’t sound like a qualifying case for this series, but the truth is that there are so many variables that come into play with Horton that it would be unwise to take anything as being a given. After all, huge expectations that were outside what Horton could do in the Panthers’ offense were what plagued his career in Florida.

For starters, it seemed quite clear when Horton first came to Boston that this is the environment in which he wanted to be. In fact, he appeared rather nervous when he was introduced alongside Tyler Seguin. So why is this good? Because Horton has appeared throughout his young career (he’s still 25) that he is ready to explode in the right situation. It seems he has that here with the Bruins, and it’s apparent that he’s excited to finally have the chance.

If Horton blossoms into the 40-goal scorer that many think he will become when placed to the right of Marc Savard, he will actually double his goals from last season. Whether or not such a feat is actually attainable remains to be seen, but playing on a team with what he called “stability” that the Panthers lacked could go a long way. A long way, yes, but far enough to make him one of the top scorers in the league?

The Bruins haven’t had a player rack up 40 goals in a season since the 2002-03 campaign, when Glen Murray finished fifth in the league with 44 (Joe Thornton wasn’t far behind with 36). How Horton gels with Savard will go a long way in determining whether he’s the next (it’s hard not to imagine Seguin getting to there within a few seasons) to do so. Horton’s spent his career with either with centers below Savard’s skillet or playing the position himself. Finally having someone who can set him up and also needs to be accounted for means big things should be in store, and that maybe those projections aren’t too crazy.

So why didn’t any of what Bruins fans and analysts are expecting for this seaoson happen in Florida? There are a number of reasons. He didn’t have the supporting cast, he was moved around (including to center, away from his natural position), and his status as a top pick led to, as mentioned above, perhaps unfair expectations given the circumstances.

When a team has the first overall pick in the draft, fans generally view whichever player their team gets as the reason as to why that club should not have to pick that high for a while. The Panthers were in that position in 2003, but they didn’t make the pick. They expressed confidence in Horton by trading the top choice to the Penguins so they could tab Marc-Andre Fleury. So in came Horton into a situation that never really improved, and as a result, he put up numbers that weren’t indicative of what he brings to the table.

At face value, it’s quite strange to see this as Horton’s golden opportunity. The numbers suggest that in trading Dennis Wideman and a pair of draft picks for Horton and Gregory Campbell, the Bruins brought Horton from the leagues’ third worst offense to the team that finished dead last in scoring. Yet Horton’s the reason people are getting excited about this team and a new scoring spark. Seguin could be a 20-goal scorer, but at least for this season, Horton was the big fish of the offseason.

After being eliminated by the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bruins were perceived as a team with a good goaltending tandem, a solid defense and a system that complements it, but offensively unsatisfactory. As it became clearer that the draft’s top center and the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s best player would be available to them at No. 2 in the draft, it seemed the depth chart would end up overflowing with centers and, though Seguin can certainly score, didn’t have anyone who could replace what they lost when they moved Phil Kessel.

Making the big move for the big winger means big expectations. Assuming he does end up linemates with Savard, it could end up being Horton who’s responsible if this team sees an offensive resurgence.

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