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Bruins' centerpiece is in place

Thornton lands three-year, $20m deal

Yesterday morning, like many New England puckheads, Brian Leetch went online to see if the Bruins had signed Joe Thornton.

Leetch didn't see any news when he first logged on, but he got his answer yesterday afternoon. The Bruins signed the restricted free agent to a three-year contract, eliminating any chance that the No. 1 center would become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2005-06 season. Though the Bruins declined to give financial details, the NHL Players Association last night confirmed the pact is worth $20 million. While the Bruins still have three restricted free agents to sign in Andrew Raycroft, Nick Boynton, and Hal Gill, locking up the franchise player was general manager Mike O'Connell's top chore on his to-do list.

''Joe's signing was a priority and we are again making clear how much he means to this franchise. He is among the upper echelon of players in our league and he just continues to get better," O'Connell said in a statement. He later declined to comment further.

Thornton's per-year salary of $6.667 million positions him between Calgary's Jarome Iginla ($7 million per) and Vancouver's Markus Naslund ($6 million), who recently signed three-year contracts. In 2003-04, the 28-year-old Iginla scored 41 goals and added 32 assists in 81 games, while the 32-year-old Naslund recorded 35 goals and 49 assists in 78 games.

In 2003-04, the 26-year-old Bruins captain scored 23 goals and 50 assists in 77 games. In the playoffs, Thornton was hampered by torn rib cartilage and was scoreless in seven games against Montreal.

Last year, after helping Canada win the World Cup championship game over Finland, the former No. 1 draft pick played for Davos in the Swedish Elite League alongside Columbus winger Rick Nash. Thornton collected 10 goals and 54 points in 40 games, leading Davos to a league title. He played for Canada in the 2005 World Championships, scoring nine goals and 19 points in nine games and winning tournament MVP honors.

Thornton, whose soft touch is paired with a surly edge (98 penalty minutes in 2003-04), should benefit from the NHL's newly instituted no-tolerance obstruction rule. Throughout his career, defenders have hooked, grabbed, and jabbed at the 6-foot-4-inch, 225-pound center, whose production should increase if the rules are enforced.

The signing comes a day after the Bruins brought back Sergei Samsonov, the winger who entered the league the same year as Thornton. Unlike Thornton, Samsonov will become an unrestricted free agent next year after accepting a $2.774 million qualifying offer (although the sides can negotiate an extension after Jan. 1, 2006). Thornton is expected to center the Bruins' top line with Glen Murray, the winger who signed a four-year, $16.6 million contract on Aug. 2. In 2003-04, Murray scored 32 goals.

''I'm excited about how our team is shaping up," said Bruins coach Mike Sullivan before the Thornton transaction was announced. ''Mike's done a terrific job of acquiring quality players and quality people. You have to think about getting the right guys, not necessarily the best guys, and he's done a great job of acquiring some of those players so far."

After completing the Thornton deal, O'Connell is now focused on negotiating with Raycroft, Boynton, and Gill. Anton Thun, Boynton's agent, said yesterday the defenseman will not accept the Bruins' qualifying offer, which will expire Monday. Thun said he has had discussions with O'Connell about a multiyear contract.

Yesterday, Phoenix defenseman Derek Morris accepted his $2.66 million qualifying offer. The 26-year-old defenseman scored six goals and 26 assists while playing for Phoenix and Colorado in 2003-04. Boynton, who is also 26, notched six goals and 24 assists in 2003-04.

''I don't want to portray Nick Boynton as being Derek Morris or vice versa," Thun said. ''Derek Morris is a very good hockey player. Nick Boynton has been a key contributor and a fine hockey player. Over the last two years, Nick has been their most reliable defenseman."

Jordan Neumann, Raycroft's agent, also said yesterday that the goalie won't accept his qualifying offer. Neumann said he has had no recent conversations with the Bruins regarding a deal for Raycroft. Mark Witkin, Gill's agent, said he expected to discuss his client's contract with O'Connell next week.

Sullivan is assuming the restricted free agents will be on the 2005-06 roster. He has been discussing line combinations and defensive pairings with assistants Wayne Cashman and Norm Maciver, who recently signed two-year deals.

The coaches have also been studying how the rule changes should affect their personnel. Sullivan and his assistants have held meetings and started to assemble a philosophy on how to swing the changes to their advantage, and prevent the new rules from exploiting their weaknesses.

''It's a challenge, but I wouldn't say it's a big challenge," Sullivan said. ''It's not like it's a different game. It's the same game with adjustments. As a staff, we have to make sure that we implement the game plan and allow our players the best chance to succeed given the new environment."

Leetch said he was looking forward to the upcoming season, given how the roster was shaping up. And that was before he even knew about Thornton's three-year deal.

''I intend to help the Bruins be successful," Leetch said. ''That's why I'm excited about going to camp."

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