THE WORDS HAVE been rolling around Nathan Horton's head for three weeks, ever since his Panthers hired GM Dale Tallon mid-May. Now, as he leaves a South Florida gym on this June day, he notices a missed call on his cell. It's his new boss. Nothing against the former Blackhawks exec whose mark is all over that talented team, but Horton's mind is made up.
Tallon is the Panthers' fifth GM in Horton's six seasons in Florida. The 25-year-old wing has also played for five coaches, in an arena that is often half-empty. "We sold out a few times when Canadian teams were in town," Horton says. "But everyone was cheering for the other team."
He has watched helplessly as the top Panthers talent (Roberto Luongo, Jay Bouwmeester, Olli Jokinen) has left. And he's seen other touted players from his 2003 draft class turn into stars (Mike Richards in Philly, Dustin Brown in LA, Zach Parise in New Jersey) and win Cups (Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, Eric Staal in Carolina, Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim). Meanwhile, despite five straight seasons of 20-plus goals, Horton's work ethic continues to be questioned by coaches, local media and fans.
"Nobody wants to be called lazy, but they need someone to pick on," he says. It's what happens when a team doesn't make the playoffs for nearly a decade. Horton has never played in a postseason game.
So he is more than ready for this get-to-know-you conversation with Tallon. When he calls back, Horton, desperate for liberation, channels all his frustration and ambition into a succinct plea: Trade me.
And that's why he is now in Boston. And why a wide, toothy smile is his constant companion. His new teammates call it the Horton Face. "I'm finally happy to just come to the rink and be around the guys," he says. "When you're happy, things go well."
The 6'2", 229-pounder is on pace for a career-high 69 points, and his rough play and rifle shot have made him an instant local favorite. That on-a-shift, off-a-shift rep died in Florida.
"When I get the puck and look over my right shoulder, he's always there," says linemate Milan Lucic. "He's big, he's physical and we have a lot of fun playing together. That's the best part."
Horton still isn't sure what the best part is for him. The 10-minute walk to the rink from his new home in the North End? The nip in the air that says hockey? The thick hum of 17,565 hometown fans at TD Garden? The potential for an annual playoff berth? He wants to stick around long enough to find out.
"I'm finally happy to just come to the rink and be around the guys."