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Penguins Horton turns up power to become possible No. 1 selection

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Nathan Horton might not be the fastest or flashiest player in the NHL Entry Draft.

But he wears the most desirable label in the game, and that might be all it takes to make him the first pick.

 
 
Third in a series on the top five prospects in the NHL Entry Draft, Saturday and Sunday in Nashville, Tenn. The Penguins have the third overall pick.
   
 

"I'm a power forward," he said. "I'm not just a scorer. I can go out there and hit people, go around them, make stuff happen. I don't want to sound cocky or anything, but I think a team can take a chance on me with the No. 1."

There is recent precedent.

Last June, the prospects generally viewed as being above the pack were defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and goaltender Kari Lehtonen. But the Columbus Blue Jackets were so eager for a power forward that they traded up two spots to take rugged and skilled left winger Rick Nash. They were not disappointed, as Nash finished his rookie year with by far the best numbers of the draft class: 17 goals, 22 assists and 78 penalty minutes in 74 games.

Horton, a 6-foot-2, 201-pound center out of Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League, has many of Nash's traits with the notable exception of Nash's one-on-one flair. Horton has above-average speed, is adept at finishing plays and solid defensively.

"I take a lot of pride in that," he said. "I work both ways."

Before a cracked jaw knocked Horton out of 14 games early this season, the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau had him ranked No. 1 among North American skaters. But lost time cost him three spots and, perhaps, a chance at being drafted first.

He still finished with impressive numbers: 33 goals, 35 assists and 111 penalty minutes in 54 games. He also helped his team into the second round of the OHL playoffs, producing nine goals, six assists and 10 penalty minutes in 13 games.

"The jaw kind of threw me off early in the year," he said. "I think I tried to come back from it too soon, and that kept me off my game for a while there. I was glad to be able to come back to being myself and play well in the big games."

Greg Malone, the Penguins' head scout, said in March that postseason performances could be critical factors in deciding how to use their pick, third overall. And he was not disappointed with Horton's showing.

Nathan Horton

"He got stronger in the second half of the season in general, but especially in the playoffs," Malone said. "He had a few games in the first round where he was in and out, but he really picked it up in the second. That was great to see."

One scout for another Eastern Conference team said last week that Horton never should have slipped in the rankings.

"That kid is tough as nails, I'm telling you, and he's the best player in the draft," the scout said. "I saw him deck a tough guy who was 232 pounds, and I know he can score goals with anyone."

Some scouts liken Horton to John LeClair, one of the best power forwards in NHL history. But Horton balks at that comparison, preferring to view himself with the faster likes of Jeremy Roenick or Peter Forsberg.

"I really like J.R.'s game," Horton said. "He can do it all, make plays, everything. That's the kind of game I've always liked."

It's the kind of game most NHL teams like. "Yeah, I know the power forward is a big deal, probably the thing that teams want most," Horton said.

"That's OK with me. I know what I can do, and I feel I can do it in the NHL right away just like Nash did in Columbus. I want to, and I believe I will."

Tomorrow: Nikolai Zherdev


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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