JERSEY CITY — Peter Chiarelli once considered Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton the best line in hockey.
On Saturday, the Bruins general manager learned it will not remain intact in 2013-14.
Nathan Horton’s camp informed the Bruins he will not re-sign with the club prior to Friday, when free agency opens. The first-line right wing will be one of the prime targets on the open market. This will be Horton’s first opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.
“Pursuant to his rights under the CBA, Nathan has informed the Bruins that he is going to explore his options as an unrestricted free agent,” Paul Krepelka, Horton’s agent, wrote in an e-mail.
Horton is coming off a six-year, $24 million contract, and could command a $6 million annual payday from another club. The Bruins, facing a cap crunch, would have been hard-pressed to offer Horton a similar salary. Buffalo and Toronto are two Eastern Conference teams that could be interested in the 28-year-old power forward. This could be Horton’s final shot at a bonanza. He will require surgery on his dislocated left shoulder. Before this year, Horton had his two most recent seasons cut short because of concussions. Horton’s rugged style puts him at greater risk of injury than finesse forwards.
The Bruins considered re-signing Horton among their first orders of business prior to Friday. Horton appeared in 169 regular-season games for the Bruins over the last three years. He had 56 goals and 51 assists.
In the playoffs, Horton had 15 goals and 21 assists in 43 games. Lucic, Krejci, and Horton combined for 23 goals and 41 assists during the 2013 postseason.
“I love the guys,” Horton said Wednesday, when asked if he wanted to return to the Bruins. “The team’s great. It’s a fun place to play. Other than that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I couldn’t tell you throughout the year what was going to happen. I don’t know. That’s all I know. We’ll see what happens.”
The Bruins acquired Horton and Gregory Campbell from Florida on June 22, 2010, for Dennis Wideman, a 2010 first-round pick, and a 2011 third-rounder.
The Bruins are now down their top two right wings, as Jaromir Jagr will not be re-signed.
Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and Shawn Thornton are the remaining right wings. Carl Soderberg could also play on the right side, although he’s primarily a center and left wing.
There was chatter on Saturday about teams inquiring about Seguin’s availability. The Bruins would have had an even bigger hole at right wing had they moved the 21-year-old. But Horton’s declaration and the team’s lack of depth at the position may have prompted the Bruins to douse any rivals’ excitement about acquiring the third-year pro.
“Not so fast on Seguin,” a team source said.
Horton’s decision may also impact Peverley’s future. Peverley was a trade candidate to clear cap space for Horton. Peverley draws a $3.25 million average annual salary.
With Horton out of the picture, the Bruins will have to look elsewhere for a top-two right wing. Because the cap is shrinking from $70.2 million to $64.3 million in 2013-14, Chiarelli expected rival teams to place players on the trade market. The Bruins could also fill in the holes via free agency starting Friday.
“What I see is there’s going to be a lot of players available,” Chiarelli said. “There may not be right now. But with the cap going down, just out of doing simple math, there’s going to be players available. I think what happens is you may have more trouble with demand and supply. I think there’s going to be players that want to play for less. That’s where, if we have to mix and match a little bit, I think we’ll be pretty good. Because we still have a very strong, contending team. I think there will be players that will want to play for us, if we get to that point. I don’t think we’ll get to that point, but if we have to . . . ”
The Bruins could receive assets by trading Andrew Ference’s negotiating rights. Several teams have inquired. Chiarelli has allowed Kurt Overhardt, Ference’s agent, to talk with clubs about acquiring the defenseman’s rights.
Ference will become unrestricted on Friday. Ference and his wife have two young daughters, and he said their education is first and foremost when deciding on his destination.
“I’m not going to stand in his way,” Chiarelli said. “Andy’s been a warrior for us. I want to help him as much as I can.”
The Bruins are also trying to acquire a first-round pick in Sunday’s draft. They ceded a conditional 2013 second-round pick to Dallas as part of the Jagr trade. The second-rounder became a first-round pick once the Bruins beat the Rangers and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. If the Bruins don’t get back into the first round, their first pick will be 60th overall.
“I think any GM who went into the draft without a first-rounder would have to do that,” Chiarelli said of trying to get back into Round 1. “So, of course, I would.”
On the restricted side, the Bruins have given qualifying offers to Tuukka Rask and Jordan Caron. They have yet to qualify Kaspars Daugavins and goaltending prospect Michael Hutchinson. Chiarelli said they still might tender offers to both players.