After he signed a seven-year, $37.1-million contract with the Blue Jackets in the summer of 2013, right winger Nathan Horton appeared in only 36 games thanks to injuries to his shoulder and abdomen last season. And Tuesday night, there was even worse news coming out of Columbus: the 29-year-old is dealing with a degenerative back injury that might be career ending.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, Horton, who has experienced back issues for several years, felt the problem worsen this summer while training in Florida and has been diagnosed with a serious degeneration of the lower back area. He may be out of action for at least this season, if not for good. There is a surgery he can undergo to address it, but it’s viewed as a last resort and offers no guarantee of success.
“He’s in constant pain,” Horton’s agent Paul Krepelka told the Dispatch. “He’s in constant discomfort.”
The majority of Horton’s $5.3-million-per-season salary will be covered by insurance and he can be placed on long term injured reserve to free up cap space with which to replace him. But that’s easier said than done for Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
There is no abundance of talent available that possesses the combination of physicality, skill and speed Horton has displayed during his 10-year NHL career. And although the Welland, Ont., native amassed only five goals and 19 points for Columbus last season, the organization was counting on his contributions this year as the team faces a tough challenge for a playoff spot. Being without Horton wouldn't be a death blow to their chances at playing beyond the end of the regular season, but his absence should not be underestimated.
The other reason this sobering news is so tough for Jackets fans: Horton chose the NHL’s youngest franchise as a free agent, something that doesn’t often happen among the league’s elite talent. So to have him limited – and perhaps taken off the shelf permanently – in what he can contribute has to be terribly frustrating for Blue Jackets fans and management.
And that’s to say nothing of the sad story this is on a personal level for Horton, who over his career with Florida, the Bruins and now, Columbus has struggled through numerous injuries, including a devastating concussion suffered on this play during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final:
If he never plays again, Horton’s final regular-season numbers look like this: 627 games-played; 203 goals; 421 points. But look at his playoff stats: 43 games played, 15 goals, 36 points. And of course, the only stat players care about: Stanley Cup champion. That’s a clutch contributor. That’s someone other teams covet. That’s what the game will lose.
Here’s hoping Horton finds his way back to playing again. If that doesn’t happen, the league and the sport will lose a talent at too young an age – and the Blue Jackets will need either internal support or Kekalainen to work some magic on the trade market to make up for the sizeable hole Horton will leave.