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Bruins Rolling the Dice with Nathan Horton Acquisition

While I am extremely optimistic about the production that newly-acquired forward Nathan Horton can bring to the Bruins this season, the acquisition comes with a risk.

Horton can either become the 40-goal scorer that most Bruins fans are hoping for, or he could become another former-first-round pick that the Bruins unnecessarily coveted.

While Horton arrives in Boston with a far more impressive track record, having started in the NHL since he was an 18-year-old rookie and already with five 20-plus goal seasons under his belt, it’s tough to shake the thought of the Bruins’ 2008 signing of Blake Wheeler when talking about the Horton acquisition.

Wheeler was selected 5th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004, a year after Horton was selected at No. 3 by the Florida Panthers.

He never made an impact for the Coyotes, though, electing to finish out his college career at the University of Minnesota. After graduating following the 2007-2008 season, Wheeler was a free agent and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli immediately signed the former-highly-touted prospect.

After scoring in his NHL debut on October 9, 2008, earning MVP honors in the 2009 NHL Young Stars Game and scoring 21 goals in his first season in the NHL, Wheeler seemed destined to breakout in 2009-2010. The stars seemed aligned; he was already productive, the rookie jitters were out of the way and he had a solid team around him. The sky seemed like the limit for the 6-foot-5 winger.

But like most Bruins players in regards to individual stats, the 2009-2010 season threw Wheeler a curveball. Rather than breaking out like he was supposed to, the 23-year-old took a step back, only tallying 18 goals and 38 points, despite playing in all 82 regular season games.

Wheeler was criticized for his lack of physicality and many fans called for him to be scratched heading into the Flyers series. This offseason, many fans have even called for the Bruins to get rid of the still-young forward, seemingly giving up hope that he will ever reach his maximum potential.

On the flip side, Bruins fans are welcoming former-Panthers winger Nathan Horton with open arms.

Horton has certainly been far more productive on an NHL level than Wheeler has yet to be, and arrives to Boston with much more hype than when Chiarelli signed Wheeler as a free agent in ’08, but he has still underachieved compared to his draft status.

A No. 3 selection is expected to be a superstar, much like Tyler Seguin is expected to be after being drafted at No. 2. Yet, Horton’s highest single-season point total has been 62 points, which he recorded on two separate occasions.

Horton likely would have surpassed that mark this past season, but he missed 17 games due to a fractured tibia, after missing 15 games the season before.

So if Horton’s inability to live up to the hype and questions of character weren’t enough to raise a red flag for the B’s, injury concerns could have been.

Then there is history, which is also not on the Bruins’ side.

Over the past decade, the team has had a tendency to try to rejuvenate former-first round picks and help them reach their maximum potential, a technique that has failed on multiple occasions.

Aside from Wheeler, the Bruins also acquired another 2004 first round draft pick in Petteri Nokelainen. Nokelainen was acquired by the Bruins from the New York Islanders for Ben Walter and a second round draft pick prior to the 2007-2008 season. He had previously been the 16th overall selection in 2004.

Nokelainen went on bounce back-and-forth between Boston and Providence, while posting pedestrian numbers in a season and a half with the club. He was then shipped to Anaheim for rental defenseman Steve Montador at the 2009 trade deadline.

Stanislav Chistov and Chuck Kobasew were 2001 first round picks that the Bruins have experimented with, but have since moved on.

Chistov was one of Chiarelli’s first acquisitions, coming over in a 2006 trade that sent a third round pick and future considerations to Anaheim. In 2001, Chistov had been the 5th overall pick, selected ahead of both Mikko Koivu and Ales Hemsky.

In black and gold, though, Chistov’s career was short-lived. He tallied only 13 points in 60 games, which remains the last time he has appeared in the NHL.

Kobasew, the 14th overall selection in that draft, saw much better days during his time with the Bruins, but has also departed. After being acquired along with Andrew Ference in 2007 for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau and a fourth round draft pick, he notched two 20-goal seasons with the Bruins.

After 158 games with the team and multiple battles with injuries, he was shipped to Minnesota on October 18 of last year.

Even prior to the Chiarelli days, which began on May 26, 2006, the Bruins experimented with former-first round picks and came up with little to show for it.

The team acquired defenseman Jeff Jillson in a 2003 trade that sent seven-year Bruins veteran Kyle McLaren to San Jose. Jillson had been the 14th selection in the 1999 draft. He only played in 50 games with the Bruins, though, before being traded for another former-first round pick Brad Boyes.

Boyes, of course, is mostly known for flourishing with the St. Louis Blues upon being traded for Dennis Wideman in 2007. Before that, Boyes was a first round pick in 2000, and was acquired by the Bruins in 2004.

Boyes showed flashes of brilliance for the B’s, totaling 69 points and earning a spot on the NHL’s All-Rookie 1st team in 2006. But the Ontario native was shipped to St. Louis the following season, and went on to score 43 goals in 2007-2008.

So while these instances are all different and have no bearing whatsoever on the fate of Nathan Horton, they still resonate in the mind of a long-time Bruins fan.

Horton comes to Beantown with the most hype of any of the other former-first round picks acquired by the Bruins, which also means the potential for the most disappointment should he not live up to it.

We won’t know the impact of the big, gritty forward until the puck is finally dropped in October, which seems like an eternity, but we must hope that his success is more sustained than any of the aforementioned players.

Love Wideman or hate him—the consensus usually being the latter—he was a solid two-way defenseman prior to last season and could resurrect his career in Florida. If he does so, and Horton struggles, Bruins fans could be singing a different tune in regards to the trade.

Nevertheless, Horton’s unique combination of size and skill validates the Bruins’ decision to once again throw caution to the wind and hope for a breakout. For all of the reasons I mentioned—failure to live up to the hype, character issues, injury concerns, history, lack of defensive depth—this trade seems like a major gamble for the Bruins.

But when you haven’t won a Stanley Cup in 38 years, you’ve got to muster up the intestinal fortitude to grab the dice and roll ‘em, no matter what red flags there may be.

Tags: Blake Wheeler Boston Bruins Nathan Horton NHL Peter Chiarelli

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