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ON HOCKEY

Price to pay for prized point man

Nearly 30 years after Brad Park showed up on Causeway Street with a steamer trunk full of goals and assists, the idea of Sergei Gonchar or Brian Leetch as the point man on the Bruins' power play should be tantalizing to the faithful who still keep a light on here in the Hub of Hockey.

No one knows if the Bruins can land either of those Mr. Fix-its, but at least they are trying, and trying earnestly, and the attempt by Mike O'Connell & Co. is affirmation that the front office recognizes the clear-and-present danger of going into the postseason with a power play that has bordered on dysfunctional for nearly all of 2003-04.

OK, they get the problem. Now, can they close the deal? For the sake of our sporting soul, let's hope this doesn't turn into A-Rod on double-runners. Note to the hockey gods: Please, guys, just this once, OK?

Word around Toronto yesterday, best detailed in the Toronto Star, is that the get-'em-at-whatever-the-cost Maple Leafs have emerged as the "prohibitive favorite" to pry the 29-year-old Gonchar from the hapless Capitals. The package reportedly includes Nik Antropov, a first-round pick, and the choice of either Carlo Colaiacovo (D) or Alexander Steen (C), both of whom are former first-round picks.

The 6-foot-6-inch Antropov, now in his fifth season with Toronto, easily can be surpassed in the bidding if the Bruins are willing to toss Sergei Samsonov into the ante. It appears they could be convinced to fork over the Magical Muscovite. The first-round pick is simple enough to match. And if they want Gonchar badly enough, which would also mean being convinced they could keep him here for the next five years or more, they could toss 18-year-old Patrice Bergeron into the offer and suit up Gonchar for tomorrow's matinee here vs. the Flyers.

As enticing as Gonchar is, however, yielding Bergeron would be just too much. Short of that, Mark Stuart might also close the deal, but the 19-year-old Colorado College blue liner, picked 21st in last year's draft, might be harder to part with than Samsonov, because Stuart looks as if he has enough Ray Bourque DNA to project as a 15-year fixture on the backline. To toss in Stuart, the Bruins would have to look at expanding the deal to include Washington's 29-year-old blue liner Brendan Witt.

Samsonov, who revealed yesterday morning that he expects to be out two more weeks with a Travis Green-like rib injury, sounded unfazed by all the trade chatter that features him among the marquee names.

"Well, it's getting close to the deadline," said the dazzling 25-year-old winger, referring to the NHL's March 9 trade deadline. "In this business, you hear rumors all the time. I guess if it happens, it happens."

On a cost basis, Samsonov for Gonchar would be a straight dollar-for-dollar swap, each of them on the books this season for $3.65 million. Both are scheduled to become Group 2 free agents July 1, which, truthfully, doesn't give them much leverage in the open market. However, both are arbitration-eligible, and that's where Gonchar stands to make a huge score. As the league's top-producing defenseman this year (7-42--49), arbitration likely would award him with something in the $6 million-$8 million range on a one- or two-year deal. Samsonov, his production less than expected this season (11-21--32), would be hard pressed to convince an arbitrator to award him more than he's already making.

Meanwhile, the Bruins are keeping an eye on yet another Manhattan meltdown, and already have a bid in for the aging Leetch that also includes a first-round pick. Blueshirt boss Glen Sather, who mercifully stepped down as coach Wednesday, wants the pick and more, which is an overplay of his hand, considering Leetch's injury history and his age (he'll be 36 Wednesday).

If, as rumored, the Blackhawks are willing to part with ex-Bruin Bryan Berard, who would command far less in trade than Leetch or Gonchar because of his past eye injury, then Berard could be the best fix of all. Consider: Gonchar, with 49 points in 56 games, is delivering .875 points per game. Berard, who signed with Chicago a couple of months into the season after the Bruins walked away from his arbitration award ($2.5 million), has 32 points in 38 games, a formidable rate of .842 per game.

Gonchar's game is more complete, without a doubt, but let's not forget the mission here: The Bruins are trying to rescue their power play, not necessarily overhaul their entire blue line corps. If they can do that, they become a major factor in the playoffs. In fact, a power play of substance (a unit that can score in the range of 20-25 percent rather than the current 16 percent) would allow the Bruins to challenge the likes of the Flyers (No. 1 on the power play at 23.5 percent) and Ottawa (No. 2 at 22.2) to represent the East in the Cup finals. That's how important it is to find Mr. Fix-it. Said another way, the decision to walk from Berard's award -- supported in this space as reasonable financial management -- sure is looking costly this morning.

Meanwhile, coach Mike Sullivan continues to look for the man-advantage cure with the men he has at hand. A good place to begin, he believes, is by getting better, more accurate shots from the point. The Bruins have played 65 games, and have gone without a power-play goal in 34. In those 34 games, they were a moribund 0 for 109. In the other 31 games, the Bruins are 39 for 131, 29.8 percent (shades of the Islander dynasty). Now that's a power play.

"People have to be in front of the net, too, to take advantage of an opportunity," said Sullivan, ruminating on the factors involved in a good point shot. "Different elements allow us to get it back there, and one of them is awareness [among the forwards]. But we feel we're capable of getting it done with the guys who are here."

The hunt continues, both on the ice and off. Meanwhile, Brad Park is still in the 'hood, and although he has a touch more gray in his hair, he can't be a whole lot slower than when we last saw him in Black and Gold. Hey, there's worse, that much we know.

in today's globe
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