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ON HOCKEY

Summer breeze or trade winds?

Dealing Thornton may make sense

Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, the 26-year-old faces of the Bruins' franchise, will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, each forward reaching the UFA threshold years earlier than they would have under the rules of the NHL collective bargaining agreement that expired Sept. 15.

So, yes, the Bruins got what they wanted with the new CBA, likely to be ratified later this week, but cost certainty may have come to Causeway Street with a steep price. In the coming weeks, unless the Bruins sign Thornton and Samsonov to deals of two or more years, each player will be on target to leave town next July, with the Bruins possibly receiving nothing but a compensatory draft pick or two in return.

Does that sound harsh, perhaps cruel? Well, welcome to the realities of a $39 million salary cap, and an entirely new way of doing business as the Original 30's cost-certainty era dawns. In the old days, a player had to be 31 by July 1 to be classified a UFA. Next summer, anyone age 29 will be UFA-eligible, as well as anyone who has a minimum eight years of active NHL service. Thornton and Samsonov have played seven seasons, will be credited for one more for the lockout, and therefore are venturing into their ninth seasons.

They stand about 49 weeks from free agency.

Bruins fans, start your worry meters.

To remind one and all once more: The basic quid pro quo in the new CBA is cost certainty for the owners, in exchange for far more liberal free agency rights for the players. For Boston, that could mean bidding adieu to their two top forwards just as they are reaching the prime of their late 20s.

For those of you who are putting together prospective Bruins rosters for '05-'06 and beyond, it sure puts a crimp in your 12-forward, six-defenseman, two-goalies ruminations, doesn't it?

Let's deal first with Thornton, the captain, who, because of his July 2 birthday, would not have been UFA eligible under the old CBA until 2010. Thornton became the face of the franchise in the weeks leading up to the Bruins making him the No. 1 overall pick in the '97 draft. More than eight years later, he has shown tantalizing flashes of brilliance, signs he could be one of the game's dominant forces. But, for the most part, they've been only flashes, and his postseason numbers, similar to the club's postseason success, have been maddeningly mediocre.

Thornton, no doubt, will seek the maximum deal allowed in the new CBA, which is $7.8 million per year (factored on 20 percent of the $39 million individual team cap). His arbitration award last summer was $6.75 million, but that will be trimmed to a $5.13 million qualifying offer for '05-'06. In years past, players with Thornton's profile would have sought a four- or five-year deal. Would the Bruins be willing to commit five years at the max, or $39 million, for Jumbo Joe? Attempts to reach GM Mike O'Connell yesterday failed, so we have no official answer.

If the Bruins aren't willing to shell out the max, and the bet here is that they'll pass, then it makes little sense to keep Thornton on the books next season. Every day that his UFA-eligible date draws closer, his trade value will drop. True, in the new era no one can outbid the Bruins for annual compensation, but there is no limit to the number of years a team can offer a player. If, say, the Bruins don't want to go more than two or three years with Thornton, another club might be eager to offer him five or six years. Dallas, given how it has done business in the past (see: Bill Guerin), might offer 10, if not 12. Again, it will take a few years for all the wrinkles of the new CBA to become apparent.

Despite his regular-season inconsistency and his tepid postseason performances (his '04 rib injury duly considered), as well as his awkward grasp of the roles of captain and franchise guy here in the Hub of Hockey, Thornton is widely considered one of the game's top 10 players. His trade value is high. In fact, it is high enough, if O'Connell can channel his Sammy Pollock within, someone might hand over a package similar to the one the Flyers coughed up in '92 for Eric Lindros.

In case a year lost to lockout took the edge off your recollection of all-time gigundo trades, the crux of the Quebec-Philly deal was Lindros to the Flyers for a boatload of talent that included 18-year-old Peter Forsberg. The latter now has his name on two Stanley Cups with Colorado (nee Quebec). Lindros never got the job done in Philly, and is shopping for a new club, with the Bruins believed to be an interested suitor.

Florida, directed by GM Mike Keenan, certainly has the cap room to go after Thornton. Keenan was the coach who finally convinced Thornton, then in his fourth season, to kick up his game to the NHL level. Keenan would covet Thornton like no other player, and the return package would have to start with defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.

The Leafs, with franchise center Mats Sundin now 34, would love a 26-year-old Thornton as the Provincial Pivot heir apparent. Trouble is: The Leafs have $27 million committed to only eight players (including $6.8 million to Sundin), and they'd have to do some stripping down -- likely shedding Sundin and buying out acres of Blue-and-White deadwood -- to bring in Jumbo Joe.

Detroit, with the future uncertain for 40-year-old Steve Yzerman, is another prime landing spot. But the Winged Wheels already are holding $32 million-plus in deals for 15 players, with a combined $12.5 million tied up in defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Derian Hatcher.

Rest assured, even with all the cap considerations, there is a great deal to be made for Thornton. Forsberg great? Maybe not. But someone will bite. If the Bruins don't want Thornton as the central building block of their franchise for the next three to five years or more, at a cost approaching $40 million (the kind of dough they never shelled out for Hall of Famers Ray Bourque or Cam Neely), then they are left with no choice but to deal him. Now.

Samsonov, Hardy to Thornton's Laurel since arriving on Fleet Street, would not draw as much trade interest. He also shouldn't be as difficult (read: expensive) to tie up, long term. His qualifying offer for the upcoming season is just more than $2.75 million, and it's realistic to think the Bruins, who love both his game and work ethic, would attempt to close on him with a three- or four-year deal averaging in the $4 million to $4.5 million range.

He, too, could choose to walk next summer, and his wife is from Detroit, where the Samsonovs now spend their summers. It could be that he would find Hockeytown a better family fit, but again, the Winged Wheels are handicapped by their old-era spending. Chicago has tons of spending room, and Samsonov's GM from IHL days, Rick Dudley, is now part of the Blackhawks' decision-making chain. If Samsonov goes free, look for the Hawks to roll out the dough.

Boston's greatest strength, without a single game played in '05-'06, appears to be in net, where rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft will team with rookie-to-be Hannu Toivonen. Both must be signed, but those deals should be easy.

The Bruins have only one defenseman, Ian Moran, under contract ($456,000) for the coming season. The only other certainty is that they'll bring back Nick Boynton (qualifier: $1.9 million), and perhaps cut a deal with Hal Gill if he wants to play for something less than his $1.6 million qualifying offer. Gill, too, is free to walk next summer. The Bruins have the money to make Sergei Gonchar a respectable offer, using his $5.5 million arbitration award last summer as a yardstick, but there is no telling where Gonchar will choose to play. Rumors had him headed back to Washington, even before the lockout began.

Other candidates to fill out the backline: Milan Jurcina, Andrew Alberts, Jonathan Girard, and, perhaps, Mark Stuart, the 21st pick overall in the '03 draft. The key, though, will be Gonchar. If he's out, the Bruins will have to find a prime free agent to give the group real definition. No one brings Gonchar's elements. But an interesting fit could be dastardly Alexei Zhitnik, who will turn 33 at the start of the season.

Up front, Tom Fitzgerald and Patrice Bergeron are back for very short money, a combined $1.1 million. It should be fairly easy for O'Connell to come to terms with P.J. Axelsson. Look for Andy Hilbert, Brad Boyes, and the steel-knuckled Colton Orr to get at least one- or two-month shots at sticking in Boston.

Glen Murray and Marty Lapointe could have jobs, but only at significant paycuts, perhaps no more than 10 percent ($3.9 million) of the total cap between them, roughly a 50 percent trim. Travis Green, 34 and a free agent, was effective during his season on the books. He would have a spot, if the dollars worked.

Lindros? He is 32 now, and his history of concussions makes him a risk. But he's an intriguing option, and he'd provide some serious push and snarl behind Thornton as the No. 2 pivot. Forsberg? The Avalanche might want to keep him around for the $7.8 million max, but they've got serious cap issues, too. It just might not work there for Forsberg anymore. How ironic, if they ended up together, sandwiched right here between Quebec and Philly.

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