Puck Potpourri-Nathan Horton: Did He Give a Hoot in Florida?

During the 2010 off-season, Nathan Horton was traded from the Florida Panthers to the Boston Bruins with Gregory Campbell in exchange for Dennis Wideman and two draft picks. The Panthers were coming off a terrible season. They finished second last in the Eastern Conference and third to last in the NHL. The Bruins had finished sixth overall and made it to the semi-finals where they lost in seven games to the Flyers. The Bruins were looking for that extra edge to put them over the top and the Panthers were looking towards building for the future. History will show that this was one of several cunning moves by Peter Chiarelli heading into a season that would eventually culminate with a Stanley Cup victory.

Nathan Horton has always been a bit of a big deal. Check out this scouting report that was written two years before his draft year in 2001 by Hockey’s Future:

“Players like the Oshawa Generals Nathan Horton, don’t come around all the time. It’s not everyday that a sixteen year old, who is 6’3″ – 195lbs, can play both ends of the ice like the 2001 2nd overall selection can. Horton, who at sixteen, is already showing signs of becoming a dominant center in the league, can indeed do it all. He can skate, shoot, pass, hit, and drop the gloves when needed.”

He’s the total package, right? A guy like Horton is every General Manager’s dream. Here we have a big two-way forward with offensive skills that’s capable of handling himself when called upon. He’s consistently put up 20+ goals in every season since his rookie year and has registered 0.69 PPG over his career. Good enough to be drafted third overall in 2003. I don’t think anyone would take that pick back.

It all sounds great, except there’s one thing that doesn’t make much sense when looking at his career numbers. Why did he only start to assert himself physically, and begin to fight with regularity in his seventh NHL season after landing in Boston? Where was that mean streak in all those years in Florida? According to HockeyFights.com, Horton was in only six fights in his first six seasons while playing in Florida. When he moved to Boston in 2010-11, he equalled, and then bettered, his career fighting major totals in just one season while racking up seven.

Regardless of offensive talent or draft pedigree, a player with a knack for the scrap is usually quick to assert themselves across the NHL when they enter the league. For example, take Wayne Simmonds who had five fights in his rookie year and four during pre-season or Mike Richards who had five fights in his rookie year. These were guys who not only had offensive ability but also had a physical edge to their game and were quick to display it. I’m having a difficult time thinking of another player who has come into the league with a noted fondness for the rough stuff, and taken so long to really showcase it. Even in his short time in the OHL, Horton was in five fights in 118 games. Mind you, he was counted on to create offense in Oshawa and his talents didn’t do much good while in the box. Not that this has stopped others in the same position before. Regardless, he was willing.

Take this from an interview with Hockey’s Future in 2002:

Who is your hockey role model?
Probably Marty McSorley, I liked him when he played.”

So what happened in Florida? How did a guy go from being scouted as a physical player with a history of fighting in the OHL and idolizing McSorley to a guy who fought roughly once a year while in Florida?

Let’s look a bit deeper into the character of Nathan Horton for some answers. Let’s have another look at that original feature I’ve already referred to from Hockey’s Future:

“His saying that he would not report to the Missisauga (sic) Ice Dogs if they drafted him 1st overall in last June’s OHL draft raised some eyebrows. But after three years of cellar dwelling, can you blame him? There does not seem to be any question about Horton’s character, as all reports out of Oshawa state that he is a great kid, with a lot of charisma and a great attitude on and off the ice.”

Okay, not the first guy to not want to play for a basement team while trying to showcase his talent in order to make the next jump. I guess you can’t really blame him too much, but there’s also a lot to be said for a guy who’s willing to be part of a rebuilding program and demonstrate their leadership abilities. Scouts take notice of this too. Mark Scheifele is a great example of this, having played on the worst team in the OHL in his draft year and still managing to go seventh overall.

Fast forward to 2010 and it becomes clear that Horton is a guy who likes to keep his distance from bad situations. He asked out of Florida when Dale Tallon took over as General Manager and it became clear that the team was in for some rough years. From the Sun Sentinel:

“In a conference call with the media minutes ago, GM Dale Tallon said Horton told him that he wanted to be traded, which is why Tallon started talking to teams about moving him. Tallon said the Horton discussions with the Bruins included talk about the No. 2 pick the Bruins hold, but that the Bruins wouldn’t budge.” 

You know the rest. Horton goes on to win the Stanley Cup and endear himself to the Boston faithful by showcasing all the promise those scouting reports in 2002 told us. He racked up seven fighting majors to go along with 53 points in the regular season and a whopping 17 points in 21 playoff games while being instrumental in the playoff drive.

So where was this physically dominant player in Florida? Why wasn’t he playing the total game he was capable of? To me, there are only a few logical explanations.

a) The organization didn’t want Horton fighting.

b) Horton was still growing into his body and wasn’t comfortable fighting or was just plain scared.

c) He would rather have that duty delegated to others and demonstrate his restraint and leadership abilities.

d) He was playing on a bottom feeding team in the Southeast Division and couldn’t be bothered.

Let’s have a look.

Perhaps the organization didn’t want him to fighting. He was after all, a third overall pick and an offensive catalyst on a team desperate for offense. He was much better served to be playing than sitting. Maybe there was an organizational policy on unnecessary fighting? Here’s how the Panthers fight log breaks down during each of Horton’s six seasons including the Panthers overall rank in the NHL.

2003-04: 38 Fighting majors (25/30)

2005-06: 20 Fighting majors (27/30)

2006-07: 29 Fighting majors (20/30)

2007-08: 38 Fighting majors (19/30)

2008-09: 34 Fighting majors (26/30)

2009-10: 50 Fighting majors (14/30)

Over these six seasons, the Panthers were usually in the bottom third of the league in fighting majors. Just under a fight every two games kinda thing. Clearly they were never the intimidating force that some teams in the NHL are. I couldn’t find anything to suggest that the Panthers ever employed a policy about fighting; they just didn’t do it a whole lot. Certainly many other NHL teams found more occasion to fight than Florida did.

So while it’s reasonable to assume the Panthers didn’t want Horton to fight, it looks to me like no one on those teams really showed much interest in it at all.

The other possibility is that he wasn’t comfortable with his body strength and ability to fight at the NHL level. While at 6’2 and around 200lbs in his draft year, this is quite possible. He has since added an extra 30lbs to his frame. In his rookie year the only fight he got into was with Vladimir Malakhov. Not exactly a staple in the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos. His other opponents over the next 5 season are as follows:

Craig Adams
Nolan Pratt
Aaron Asham
Hal Gill
Tim Gleason

Some tough guys, but they certainly get tougher than that.

Another option is that the fighting duties were delegated to another player, perhaps a designated enforcer or two so the star players wouldn’t be required to fight. The stats show otherwise.

2003-04: 14 players fought. Darcy Hordichuk led the team with 16 of the 30 total fights.

2005-06: 10 players fought. Chris Gratton and Steve Montador were tied for the team lead with 4 fights each out of the 20 total fights.

2006-07: 10 players fought. Steve Montador led the team with 9 of the 29 total fights.

2007-08: 13 players fought. Tanner Glass led the team with 7 of the 38 total fights.

2008-09: 13 players fought. Anthony Stewart and Gregory Campbell led the team with 6 fights each out of the 34 total fights.

2009-10: 13 players fought. Nick Tarnasky led the team with 13 of the 50 total fights.

With the exception of Horton’s rookie season, there has been a plethora of players who have fought each season and rarely has one player carried all the weight. It looks like Horton was just one of many players each season who contributed to the team’s fight totals.

Now the other option here is that Horton was playing on a bottom feeding team, in a non-traditional hockey market and regularly playing against other non-traditional hockey market teams in the Southeast Division where media attention is scarce compared to the circus further north. He has shown through his refusal to report to Mississauga in the OHL if he was drafted by them, and by his trade request in 2010 that Horton does not like to play for losers.

Is it possible that Horton just couldn’t be bothered since no one was really paying attention? It’s also worth noting, despite the small sample size due to statistics on hits not being kept until 2009-10, that Horton had a mere 34 hits in 2009-10 (0.52 hits per game) compared to 74 in 2010-11 (0.93 hits per game) with Boston.

I think it’s just as reasonable as any other possibility I’ve discussed.

Now everyone knows about the reputation of Boston. They’re a big, physical team with rabid fans that love the physical side of the game. They always have. It’s a city that embraces blue collar heroes. It’s the city of Teddy Bruschi, Cam Neely, Kevin McHale and Jason Varitek. The fans hold people accountable and the media attention is relentless. Play well and play hard, and you will be rewarded.

Look no further than this recently Elliote Friedman piece where he discusses the Boston condition:

“One thing definitely happening with the Bruins? Opposing coaches are ordering their players not to engage them after the whistle. No team feeds off those scrums/battles/fights more than Boston (and its fans).”

I guess it really goes without saying that Boston has one of the toughest reputations as far as NHL cities go. Did Nathan buy into that mentality or did he have it within himself all along? How much of an influence was the change of scenery to his willingness to fight? Did Horton have it in him all along for did he just feed off the infleunce and reputation of the city? Boston certainly boasts one of the toughest teams in the league, it wasn’t exactly necessary for him to fight as often as he did last season. Where was that piss and vinegar in Florida when his team could have used some extra grit on certain nights? These are the things that must drive Florida fans nuts.

Now we know the rest, Horton arrives, scraps, scores and celebrates. He becomes a legend. It just leaves me with one lingering question:

Did Florida really get the most out of Nathan Horton?