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What happens in Columbus if Horton’s out long-term?

Florida Panthers v Columbus Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, OH - FEBRUARY 1: Nathan Horton #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates after the puck during the game against the Florida Panthers on February 1, 2014 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have dealt with a lot of headaches lately - Brandon Dubinsky is IR bound, Ryan Johansen may not play in Thursday’s opener - yet the uncertainty regarding Nathan Horton’s back lingers.

We know one thing for sure: the 29-year-old is on Columbus’ IR because of those back problems. The rest is fuzzy and at least one outlook is downright grim.

HNIC’s Elliotte Friedman shared a discouraging (but, importantly, by no means confirmed) outlook on Horton with Sportsnet 960 on Tuesday. Here’s an excerpt from Chris Nicholls’ transcription:

" ... The word I’m getting is he’s there in Columbus and they met with him yesterday and he’s committed to rehab. They don’t want to have surgery on his back, but he’s committed to going through rehab. But there’s no guarantees here, I think is what we’re kind of learning. That this is potentially a long-term thing. It’s a pretty serious back injury. They’re hoping that working on his core strength will make him better, but there is the potential that this is a much more serious long-term injury than we realize.

“And I can find nobody who is willing to tell me that his career is in jeopardy, but it does sound like this is a pretty significant injury that if they can’t solve this simply through rehab, the surgical options might not be that good. So it sounds like we’re not talking about a short time thing here. We’re talking about something that could be pretty long-term.”

The first sentence of the second paragraph is key there: no one said that Horton’s career is in “jeopardy.” It’s best not to jump to conclusions here, even if such phrasing obviously raises eyebrows. Even the long-term talk is far from confirmed.

That said, it sounds like the Blue Jackets have at least pondered a contingency plan if Horton’s back doesn’t heal anytime soon. The Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline passed along this interesting nugget on that subject:

“A big ticket, top-six winger,” eh? That’s interesting. It’s difficult to avoid pondering Evander Kane and Johansen menacing opponents with their size and skill for at least a moment, even if there are plenty of other interesting candidates that could fit the bill.

The Blue Jackets certainly have the cap space (if not the budget) to land a big fish, too. In fact, they’d likely have room to make a significant upgrade even if Horton’s $5.33 million cap hit remains.

A wave of injuries (Horton, Dubinsky, Boone Jenner), a change of scenery for Scott Hartnell and potential rustiness for Johansen could shape up to provide some serious challenges for the Blue Jackets’ high-end forwards. The organization is likely tired of “waiting until next year,” so if Horton’s back issues cannot be solved by rehabbing, it wouldn’t be shocking if management decided to make waves.

Obviously, nothing’s set in stone, so there’s the risk of possible overreactions. That said, it appears that plenty is riding on Horton’s aching back.

Follow James O’Brien @cyclelikesedins