A full six months since his last lick of NHL action, and still more than eight weeks before training camp is tentatively slated to commence, Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton is on a smooth path towards returning to normalcy.
During a Tuesday press conference, general manager Peter Chiarelli mentioned that “Nathan Horton has been cleared for contact and by all accounts from our medical staff will be ready to play when it comes time to play.”
Within the last 14 months, Horton has suffered two concussions at the hands of Vancouver’s Aaron Rome (June 6, 2011) and Philadelphia’s Tom Sestito (Jan. 22 of this year). The two injurious hits have conspired to end each of his last two seasons prematurely.
Granted, with that history comes a certain degree of irremovable uncertainty. But, a best-case scenario is more believable based on the timing of Horton’s latest prognosis as well as the altogether commendably cautious way the Bruins have handled his recovery.
If all goes according to plan, Horton will join his teammates to begin preseason activity almost precisely eight months to the day after Sestito's hit that sidelined him. That amounts to a recuperation period roughly twice that of his comeback effort from the first concussion.
If the worst is behind him, Horton is primed to pose a critical difference on a roster that Chiarelli has hardly ruffled so far this offseason. The brawny, top-six winger’s absence, or presence, amounts to the difference between having 11 and 12 NHL-ready forwards active and under contract.
Barring a clearance of cap space to acquire an additional forward, the Bruins would otherwise need to bank on someone along the lines of Jared Knight or Ryan Spooner giving them that 12-forward quorum. One of those soon-to-be professional rookies might be fine as a spare part, but all parties would be better served if they could both start off with regular game action in Providence.
Could things still be better, even with Horton in the equation? No doubt.
If Chiarelli can manage to remove either Marc Savard or Tim Thomas’ cap hit, he should seek to shore up the upper echelon of his depth chart. The most preferable arrangement would have 12 established NHL strikers, plus Jordan Caron, continuing to compete for the right to a full campaign in The Show, while both Knight and Spooner wait in the wings in case of an emergency.
Based on what he said in Tuesday’s conference and the subsequent press release on the Bruins’ website, Chiarelli does not sound so inclined to make that move. That implicitly means taking the risky approach of having one of the freshmen brought on as the 13th forward to practice with the parent club and to enter game action when needed.
So, the GM may not be springing in the effort to make Boston better, but with Horton’s health along, it is hard to claim the outlook is getting worse.
Horton projects to be one of seven returning regulars aged 27 or younger, namely Caron and the entire top six, on a team that tied Philadelphia for the NHL’s second-best regular-season output of 3.17 goals per game.
Horton may or may not have been a difference-maker in the Bruins’ first-round fizzle versus Washington, in which all seven games were decided by a single goal. It is certainly within rational boundaries to, at least in part, link the team’s fall from November-December dominance to February-March limbo with his return to the injured reserve.
As long as he is no longer hurting, Horton can only be helping Boston’s cause.