WILMINGTON — Nathan Horton hasn’t played in an NHL game since Jan. 22, 2012. Like all his union brothers, Horton has missed nearly three months of healthy direct deposits ($4 million annual salary) because of the lockout. Horton is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Funny how a skate with your teammates can render such troubles irrelevant.
On Thursday at Ristuccia Arena, Horton participated in his first post-lockout practice. This week’s on-ice sessions have been informal. The Bruins’ coaching staff is forbidden from running an official practice until the collective bargaining agreement has been ratified.
But for Horton, the session marked the first time he has skated at full pace with his teammates since suffering the head injury that halted his 2011-12 season.
“I feel great,” Horton said. “I’ve had a lot of time to work out and get back to normal. Obviously it’s been tough for everyone this year. It’s not the way anybody wanted it to be. But I feel great. Better than I have in a long time.”
Horton’s latest injury marked the second straight season in which a concussion kept him from playing in the Bruins’ final game. During Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, a predatory Aaron Rome hit put Horton flat on his back on the TD Garden ice.
Horton didn’t play again in that series, although he provided his teammates with two inspirational moments. After Game 4, Horton made a surprise visit to the dressing room and handed off the iconic vintage jacket, which had been in his stall following Game 3, to Rich Peverley.
Horton then traveled to Vancouver for Game 7 and poured a bottle of melted Garden ice onto the Rogers Arena sheet.
One season later, what appeared to be a tamer hit led to the same conclusion. In the first period of a game against the Flyers, Horton absorbed a check from the broad-shouldered Tom Sestito. Horton instantly felt a headache and didn’t return for the rest of the game. Neither Horton nor the team had a clue that it would be his final appearance of 2011-12.
Horton attempted several comebacks. He hit the ice for solo skates and was nearly up to full speed in off-ice workouts. But he told his employers that he didn’t feel quite right, and on April 11, 2012, the Bruins officially shut down Horton for the season.
“I got one shot at it the year before,” Horton said of playing in the postseason. “One taste of it, you just want to keep going. I didn’t get to do that. It was pretty disappointing. It was a tough year for me.”
During the summer, Horton returned to his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., offseason home. He resumed his off-ice workouts and skating sessions, reporting no post-concussion syndrome symptoms.
Once the lockout started, Horton opted not to sign with a European team.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this long — I don’t think anybody did,” Horton said. “It’s definitely tough. But getting back to normal and feeling like myself again, it makes me excited to be back.”
The Bruins won’t know how effective Horton will be until the games start Jan. 19 at TD Garden against the New York Rangers. If all goes well, Horton will be the right-side scoring threat who debuted as a Bruin in 2010-11.
Horton, who arrived in Boston by way of the Panthers, skated alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci on the No. 1 line. As a first-year Bruin, he had 26 goals and 27 assists in 80 games. In the first round of the playoffs, Horton scored the Game 7 overtime winner against Montreal. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, Horton netted the only goal of the Bruins’ 1-0 masterpiece over Tampa Bay.
Horton’s presence had a trickle-down effect throughout the lineup during the Stanley Cup-winning season. Opposing coaches deployed their top shutdown pairings against Horton’s line. That gave the No. 2 line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Mark Recchi more operating space in the offensive zone.
Horton’s top-line status had an especially important impact on the No. 3 line. On other clubs, Peverley might have been a top-six forward. But with Horton in place and clicking, Peverley skated on the third line with Michael Ryder and Chris Kelly. That threesome gave the Bruins a depth advantage.
In last year’s playoffs, Peverley had to play out of position because of Horton’s absence. In the Game 7 loss to Washington, Tyler Seguin skated with Lucic and Krejci. An injured Bergeron centered Marchand and Peverley.
This will be a critical season for the 27-year-old Horton. He is entering the final year of a six-year, $24 million contract.
The Bruins currently have approximately $57 million in salary committed to their 2013-14 roster. By placing Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve, they can exceed the $64.3 million cap by the center’s $4,083,333 average annual salary. But their first order of business will be to re-sign Tuukka Rask. The goalie will be a restricted free agent after this year. It is difficult to project whether the Bruins will have enough cap space — or interest — to bring Horton back.
Regardless of his 2013-14 destination, Horton is playing for his next contract. And he is happy to be playing, not worrying about his health.
“I really haven’t thought of it,” Horton said. “I’m not even worried about my head. I’m not worried about contact, getting in a fight, or anything like that. It’s really in the back of my head.
“I’m looking to the future. I haven’t thought of it. I feel better than I have in a long, long time. I’m just happy to feel good.”
. . .
Peverley, Daniel Paille, and Aaron Johnson joined the informal practices Thursday for the first time this week. The Bruins signed Johnson on July 18, 2012, to a one-year, $650,000 contract. Last year, the defenseman had 3 goals and 13 assists in 56 games for Columbus. With the status of Adam McQuaid unknown for the start of the season, Johnson is in the mix for a job on defense . . . Krejci and Anton Khudobin have yet to practice . . . General manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien watched Thursday’s practice. They did not attend any of the practices at Boston University this week.