Experience and maturity are beginning to wear well on Nathan Horton.
As he enters his fifth NHL season, his first as a parent, Horton is maturing into a player who wants more responsibility, to be held accountable for his performance in games and practices, and for a chance to savor the playoffs.
As he closes in on his 300th NHL games, the Panthers’ promising forward is tired of answering the same old questions about the team’s inability to make the playoffs and wants the franchise to embark on a new beginning.
And Horton is ready to step up his game.
“I need to do more,” Horton said last week as he prepared to begin the season as possibly the team’s No. 1 center. “The big thing is I can’t take nights off, and that comes from working hard.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot more to give.”
And Horton says he’s prepared to give more, beginning in practice.
“Practice means a lot,” he said. “I’m going to try to do my best in practice and hope that carries over into games. We’re not taking nights off because nights we take off are points we need at the end of the season.”
Since being drafted first (third overall) by the Panthers in 2003, Horton has been tagged as a “break out” player. And he’s done little to dissuade those who believe he’s a 40-goal scorer. He has the best shot on the team and he’s not afraid to be physical.
In the past three seasons, Horton has scored 28 or more goals (31 in 2006-07) and has scored 62 points the past two seasons. In both of those years he’s been a plus-15.
But there’s always been the thought that Horton would have more to give once he was comfortable and matured. Horton now appears to be at that place.
He admits he’s a different person than the one who came into the league as an 18-year-old straight out of juniors. “Obviously, you’re different, and, obviously, there’s a big change from 18 to 23,” he says.
There could also be a change in where Horton plays this season. After spending all but one game of his NHL career at right wing, Panther coach Peter DeBoer has been using Horton at center between veteran Cory Stillman and Rostislav Olesz. He’s welcome to the opportunity.
“It’s more responsibility and maybe you get into the game a little more,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun when you can move around and go anywhere on the ice to help out and have more of a responsibility.”
DeBoer remembers coaching against Horton and recalls Horton being a “dominant center in junior (hockey).”
“He went head-to-head against (Eric) Staal night in and night out and usually came out on top,” DeBoer said.
DeBoer isn’t the only one excited about Horton playing center.
“He sees the ice great, moves the puck really well and his shot is second to none,” said teammate Stephen Weiss
Horton’s possible move to center would be another in a list of moves the Panthers made over the off-season. From GM Jacques Martin bringing in DeBoer to his acquisitions of Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, Bryan McCabe and Stillman.
Maybe it’s another reason Horton is optimistic about the upcoming season. He said something “needed to change,” when it came to the team. “And we have great guys we brought in who are leaders, older guys, who I think will make it a lot of fun,” he added. “Stillman and McCabe and the list goes on. It’s exciting for me and I think it’s exciting for everyone.”
Horton admits he’s no different than anyone else when it comes to failing to make the post season. “The fans are sick of it, obviously the players are, and (for) the organization it hasn’t been fun,” he said.
“(But) we made huge improvements this summer,” he added. “The guys we brought in…I don’t think it could be better for anyone.”
And so Horton is ready. He talks about being desperate, the need for the Panthers to get off to a quick, and the team coming together and enjoying the game.
“I’m excited,” Horton reiterated.