Nathan Horton: Can Boston Bruins Winger Return to Form After Concussion Saga?

Chris BlanchardContributor IIINovember 10, 2012

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 01:  Nathan Horton #18 of the Boston Bruins passes the puck in the third period against the Ottawa Senators on November 1, 2011 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Boston Bruins defeated the Ottawa Senators 5-3.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Boston Bruins winger Nathan Horton is supposedly ready to make a return to the ice, if and when the season begins. The question remains whether or not his production will return with him. 

Horton's agent, Paul Krepelka, recently had the following to say about his client:

Nathan is healthy and ready for the season to start. Has been for a while now. He's ready to go and has been ready to go.

This comes as encouraging news considering Horton opted not to join a European club during the lockout, presumably to further his recovery and avoid injury. When he finally takes the ice, it will be his first game since January 22. 

The winger's concussion problems memorably began in Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, when he bore the brunt of a nasty open-ice hit from Vancouver Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome. Horton's injury may have driven his teammates to a Cup victory, but his career would take a major hit. 

Last season, Horton managed to play in just 46 games—the fewest in his NHL career. He was effective when on the ice, with 17 goals and 15 assists for 32 points. His production put him on pace for an 82-game total of 30 goals, which would have led the team. 

Unfortunately, a blindside hit from Philadelphia Flyer Tom Sestito halted Horton's strong season with another concussion. At the time of the injury, Horton led the Bruins in power-play goals. 

His scoring ability and physical play were severely missed in the playoffs, when the Bruins fell to the Washington Capitals in the first round. The Bruins were widely criticized throughout the series for a lack of scoring. 

Before the concussions, Horton played on Boston's top line with Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Without their linemate, Lucic and Krejci struggled. While Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand took over as Boston's top line, Lucic struggled to score and David Krejci finished the year with a grizzly minus-five rating, which looked especially poor in comparison to Bergeron's league-leading plus-36. 

After missing so much time, Horton has certainly fallen down the depth chart in Boston. He will likely have every opportunity to rejoin Krejci and Lucic, but the trio will no longer see top-line minutes. If he struggles early on, coach Claude Julien could swap him with Rich Peverley, who is currently preparing for the season with Finland's JYP. 

Horton certainly had not lost a step last season, but he may find it harder to return this year. Time will tell how confident he is about his health. After the concussions, he could shy away from the more physical aspects of the game in order to protect himself. 

He may also struggle to recover the chemistry he once shared with Krejci and Lucic. If early games go poorly, Horton's confidence could pay the price. The rust could be too much to bear. 

However, Horton is a strong-willed player. His mental toughness has been exhibited repeatedly by his clutch play. His three game-winning goals in the 2011 playoffs—including two series-clinchers—have not been forgotten. As a result, Boston fans will continue to support him regardless of his early-season form. 

Horton's play should return to the level that earned him 53 points in 2010-11, if not better. However, it may take a while for him to get going. Considering he has not been playing competitively during the lockout, conditioning could be an issue and may slow him down early on. 

However, if he settles into a groove within the first month of the season, he should be a productive player once again and he will certainly contribute to a weak power play. 

Despite the talent that he brings to the table, Horton's production will not be the Bruins' primary concern this year. They will simply be happy to have him play through a season without suffering further damage. It would be heartbreaking to see him follow in the footsteps of teammate Marc Savard. Savard has not played since January 23 of 2011, almost exactly one year before Horton's most recent injury. 

Luckily, for now, all signs are go for Nathan Horton, as he looks to make big comeback in 2012-13.