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Panthers' Horton OK with pressure

by Dan Rosen

Nathan Horton has 50 points on 20 goals and 30 assists through 66 games. Watch Nathan Horton highlights
Florida Panthers winger Nathan Horton let the trade deadline pass with ease, his only minor concern being whether good pal Olli Jokinen would still be his teammate and captain after 3 p.m. last Tuesday.

Horton earned the right to sleep well around the biggest moving day of the NHL season. That’s what happens when a 23-year-old continues to show promise for what could become a wildly successful NHL career.

The third-overall pick in the 2003 Entry Draft, behind only Marc-Andre Fleury and Eric Staal, Horton signed a six-year contract extension this past summer. So far he’s doing all he can to live up to it.

After pumping in 31 goals and dishing out 31 assists while playing all 82 games last season, Horton is second behind only Jokinen on the Panthers this season with 50 points on 20 goals and 30 assists through 66 games.

“There is a little bit of pressure,” Horton said of being drafted so high. “Obviously being picked that high in a very good draft is tough (to live up to), but I’ve done well so far. Obviously I’m having an all right year, but I want better.”

Durable. Reliable. Skillful. They’re all adjectives that apply to Horton.

The one word he thinks is still missing is consistent, but that’s not totally Horton’s fault. Injuries have played a key factor as to why he and the Panthers haven’t been as consistent as Horton had hoped to be in the first year of his big contract.

Horton has not played with a steady centerman all season, instead cycling through Jokinen, Stephen Weiss, and even checker Kamil Krepps. None of those three are pure passers in the mold of a Marc Savard, Peter Forsberg, or Joe Thornton.

“He’s so good in my view, so naturally talented that you always wonder how much more he can give. That’s the beauty of having a 23-year-old guy,” said Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, a color analyst on Florida’s local TV broadcasts. “Particularly with us, since he’s gone through different centermen, I just think we haven’t even touched the top of what he can accomplish.

“From night to night he’s played with Jokinen, Weiss, and Krepps, so can you imagine what it’s like to say; ‘OK, what do I do tonight with my centerman?’ That’s a major part of the injury problem.

“I tell you what, though. When (David) Booth, Weiss and Horton were together at the end of January into early February they were just a dynamite line.”

Horton isn’t one to use excuses. He says matter-of-factly that he “needs to be better,” that he “hasn’t done enough so far,” and “to be a better player I have to show up every night.”

“If I was better I’d help my team win more games,” he added.

Horton, though, is still developing, and that takes time.

“He has all of the assets, but he’s still working on putting them together,” added Potvin, who believes Horton can still do more with his wrist shot and his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. “He doesn’t have those 300 games played yet.”

Like Potvin, Panthers coach and GM Jacques Martin doesn’t believe Horton has even come close to reaching his potential. But Martin was quick to note that for a young NHL player, Horton certainly has the defensive part of his game down pat.

“The one thing that is good is when he’s not at his best not often is he a liability,” Martin said. “He understands the game and he’s committed defensively, but I still think he is going to be a dominant player.”

Horton’s commitment to defense becomes evident when you look at his plus-30 rating over his career.

Horton’s commitment to defense becomes evident when you look at his plus-30 rating over his career. This season, his plus-plus-12 is second among Panthers. He was a plus-15 last season and a plus-8 the year before when he had 47 points, including 28 goals.

Martin noted that Horton also leads the Panthers in plus-minus when it comes to scoring chances, meaning every time Horton is involved in a scoring chance for he gets a plus and every time he’s involved in a scoring chance against he gets a minus.

During a 14-game span bridging January and February, Martin said Horton was a plus-25.

“To me, that shows that he’s progressing,” Martin said. “I still think he can become more of a factor in a game when he plays physical and gets involved as far as finishing checks and driving to the net. That’s an area where there still needs some improvement.”

Some of that improvement came in the offseason when Horton dedicated himself to his training. Instead of returning to Toronto (he’s from Welland, Ontario), Horton stayed in South Florida for the entire summer, running under the hot sun.

“You know, it’s really hot,” Horton said. “I don’t think I’m going to do it this summer. You can’t even go outside. I was running outside, and it was nice, but it was hard. It was a hard summer.”

A hard summer that yielded excellent results. Horton said he entered camp in the best shape of his life, which is undoubtedly correlates to the big contract he signed. Horton even admitted that he’s more dedicated to hockey now than ever before.

“I don’t have other things to worry about now,” he said. “It’s all about hockey and that’s the way it should be.”

Before and after the trade deadline.

Just the way it ought to be for a promising young player.

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