Boston Bruins: Should Nathan Horton Be Shelved for the Season?

Al DanielCorrespondent IIFebruary 12, 2012

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 04:  Nathan Horton #18 of the Boston Bruins waits for a faceoff during an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on January 4, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Boston Bruins’ forward Nathan Horton is precisely three weeks removed from sustaining his latest concussion via Philadelphia Flyers’ forward Tom Sestito. And the latest reports from this weekend indicate that every ounce of normalcy he has delicately built since then were spilled upon his first attempt to return to the ice.

After Horton took part in the team’s most recent practice on Friday, head coach Claude Julien informed the Boston hockey press corps that “He’s back to square one.”

That means a full-scale setback in recovery on top of two head injuries, all occurring within a span of eight months, beginning with Aaron Rome’s hit in Game 3 of last year’s Stanley Cup finals.

Chronologically speaking, Horton’s concussion saga is even more compacted than the two others that have rocked the Bruins’ roster in recent memory. Patrice Bergeron was almost 14 months removed from his initial jolt at the hands of then-Flyer Randy Jones before he was biffed in the brain again in December of 2008.

Marc Savard had 10 months separating the hit from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke that altered the course of his career and the one via Colorado’s Matt Hunwick that likely ended his competitive playing endeavors altogether. In between were two ill-advised stints on the active roster that doubtlessly stunted his recovery.

Once again, Horton, the Bruins’ medical staff and the Bruins’ management have those two cautionary barometers in Bergeron and Savard. The two predecessors all but represent the best- and worst-case scenarios and some handy suggestions of do’s and don’ts.

It was around this time a year ago that general manager Peter Chiarelli called a press conference to formally declare Savard’s 2010-11 campaign finished. For the tragic hero’s sake, it was a decision made one year too late. Savard’s involvement in all seven games in the second round of the 2010 playoffs, plus 25 games the subsequent regular season, left him far too prone to another injury.

It was also during this calendar month four seasons ago that Bergeron took his first set of leisurely, solitary strides around Ristuccia Arena since the Jones incident. At that time, the first-year coach Julien and his healthier pupils were hacking their way through playoff limbo, trying to put a tangible stamp of success on the franchise’s attempts to restore relevance.

The easy, though imprudent thing to do would have been to hasten Bergeron back into action at the tail-end of the regular season and see if his services could make a difference in the opening round against the once-mighty Montreal Canadiens. Instead, Chiarelli and Julien made the right call and gave their beyond-his-years alternate captain the balance of the season and a full summer to replenish everything he had lost the preceding October.

Few head-scratchers in the Chiarelli-Julien administration have torn off more scalp skin than the question as to why the Bruins did not demonstrate the same shrewdness with Savard. To say nothing of the impact on the player’s health, having Savard back in action a mere two months after Cooke’s concussive elbow was a liability in the forgettable outcome of their battle with the Flyers.

Even if Horton can make a more convincing recovery after this false start, odds are he will not be cleared to intermingle with his teammates on the Ristuccia Arena ice for at least a full month. When and if he does, it should probably be in a manner similar to Bergeron’s participating in practice during April 2008.

Horton needs to be assured that there is still a place for him on the Bruins’ depth chart in the long run. The last thing he needs is any psychologically adverse sense of pressure to return and contribute to this year’s homestretch and subsequent chase for a second consecutive Stanley Cup.

For that reason, in the two weeks between now and the NHL trading deadline, Chiarelli need not be so choosey as to shun a “rental” acquisition. Even if it means sacrificing one or two skaters from a slowly improving Providence team and/or a junior-based prospect to meet the seller’s demands and open sufficient cap space.

Horton’s health and Boston’s consistent stature among the upper echelon of NHL contenders should hardly have to compromise one another. The top-six striker should be given abundant time to recuperate. He should have a chance to set his bar reasonably low and his sights on the next training camp while a new face keeps his spot warm and eases the burden on the unripe Jordan Caron.

That is, unless Caron tacks on enough seasoning to comfortably assimilate into the playoff lineup, which Chiarelli may need to allow anyway if the trade market is as tight as he projects. But even then, as Bergeron and Savard have both proven in the past, Horton should still be granted the most cautious ride to recovery for the common good.