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Penguins Horton upholds his part of deal

Friday, November 07, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Penguins traded up in the June entry draft to get a franchise goalie.

More Penguins Coverage:

Penguins Report: 11/7/03


The Florida Panthers traded down to get a player his coach likens to Mark Messier.

Yeah, that Mark Messier. The one who, a few days ago, climbed past Gordie Howe and into second place on the NHL's all-time scoring list.

Sure, Florida Coach Mike Keenan acknowledged that it was something of a "wild comparison" to say that rookie center Nathan Horton "has got a little bit of an edge like Mark Messier" when he was asked if Horton reminded him of any player he has seen in the NHL.

But Keenan didn't retract a syllable of his answer. And isn't likely to anytime soon.

For while Horton was 1,848 points behind Messier before the New York Rangers faced Carolina last night, he has done nothing to make Florida's management second-guess its decision to pass on a chance to draft goalie Marc-Andre Fleury a few months ago.

The Panthers already had an elite goalie, Roberto Luongo, on their depth chart, and they didn't have anyone like Horton. Not many teams do.

So they were quite willing to listen when the Penguins, who will face the Panthers at 7:38 p.m. today at the Office Depot Center, showed interest in moving up to the top spot in the draft order.

And when the Penguins offered to package the No. 3 choice in the draft with winger Mikael Samuelsson and a second-round draft choice, Florida, which also had to give up a third-rounder, didn't hesitate to finalize the deal.

The Penguins invested that No. 1 choice in Fleury, who has exceeded even the most outlandish expectations, and the Panthers, after watching Carolina claim center Eric Staal, grabbed Horton, a power forward with enormous potential.

His stats -- two goals and one assist in 13 games -- are pedestrian, but his size (6 foot 2, 201 pounds) at age 18 is striking. Especially when his skill level, skating and versatility are factored into the equation.

"He's struggled a little bit offensively," Keenan said. "He's probably not used to those types of [lackluster] results. He's always had better results than most players. They get a little frustrated with the feedback that they're not producing [offensively], but there are other things he does well for us.

"He's a good faceoff man, and he can play in a role as a checker or defensive player. You can throw him on the power play, and he can be effective. He's got a multitude of talents that we can ... tap into."

Horton got his first NHL goal Saturday, in his 12th NHL game, and added another in the Panthers' 3-2 loss Wednesday to Los Angeles.

Late in the second period, he lost his balance after carrying the puck left to right across the slot but still had the presence of mind and composure to sweep the puck past Kings goalie Roman Cechmanek while lying on his stomach.

Horton had acknowledged a few hours earlier that "it took awhile to score my first goal," and clearly was relieved that he finally got it after more than three weeks of trying.

"I wanted to get that out of the way," he said. "I had some chances before, but they just weren't going in. But now that one's gone in, hopefully, a couple more will."

That, Keenan said, isn't unreasonable to expect, because scoring should reinforce Horton's belief in his abilities.

"It's a relief for him because he's getting results for his work," he said. "And that will boost his confidence."

Horton, like Fleury, seems to have plenty of that right now. And he, like Fleury, knows that he could be sent back to his junior team at any time this season. Not that, at least for the moment, either player is giving his club reason to considering paring him from the major-league roster.

Keenan said he sees "no benefit" to sending Horton back to the Ontario Hockey League now, and Horton clearly doesn't expect to be pulling on an Oshawa Generals sweater in the foreseeable future. Or ever, for that matter.

"If you're working hard and doing the things you're [supposed] to do," he said, "they're not going to send you back."

Horton has not been dominant at this level; no one could realistically have expected him to be during his first month in the NHL. But, like Fleury and Staal, he doesn't look -- or act -- his age on the ice, even though he still is adapting to the pace of play.

"When you first step on the ice, you don't know how the speed is," Horton said. "It's a lot different from junior. It's a big step up."

But it also is part of the transition every NHL newcomer goes through.

"It's the same adjustment every young player makes," Keenan said. "The quick decision-making, making a change in his game where he realizes he can't make the same type of moves, that he has less time to make those moves.

"His reactions have to be quicker, his timing has to be quicker and his execution has to be quicker. He has the physical attributes to do that. He has to adjust the mental side of his game."

If Horton can do that, he could be an impact player for years. And those comparisons to Messier might not seem so outrageous, after all.

Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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