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Hub clearly where Thornton's heart is

Perhaps the Bruins would have signed Joe Thornton anyway. But general manager Mike O'Connell, who inked Thornton to a three-year, $20 million contract Thursday, can give an assist to unrestricted free agent Jiri Slegr for helping the Bruins close the deal.

J.P. Barry, Thornton's agent, also represents Slegr, who agreed to a one-year contract with Boston Thursday. After Barry and O'Connell finalized the defenseman's contract without a hitch, they realized they could get two deals done in one day.

''I think that spurred us on," O'Connell said yesterday. ''We figured out, 'Hey, we can get along. We can make a deal.' So we got to talking more on Joe, his situation, how to get this done, and how to bridge the gap we faced."

Thornton arrived in Boston yesterday morning and walked into a rink that has changed its name since he last skated on its sheet. He looked lean and announced that he was healthy, unlike the last time he wore a Bruins sweater, when he was suffering from torn rib cartilage against the Canadiens in the playoffs.

''I wanted to come back, they wanted to have me, so it was a no-brainer to come back here," Thornton said. ''I love this city. I love playing here. I'm just excited."

Thornton, who was originally offered a five-year, $25 million contract before other signings (Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Jarome Iginla) altered the landscape, preferred to sign a three-year contract, citing the uncertainty of the new collective bargaining agreement. Thornton said once Iginla signed a three-year, $21 million contract with Calgary last Wednesday, he knew his per-year salary would be somewhere under the winger's earnings -- although he's not complaining about $20 million total.

''They showed me a lot of money," Thornton said. ''Now it's time for me and company to have a great year, go far in the playoffs, and hopefully win the Stanley Cup. I think we've got a better team this year than in previous years. We'll do our best to bring the Cup back to Boston."

Last month, before the free agency doors swung open, O'Connell traveled to London, Ontario, to meet with Thornton and present the captain with his game plan for stocking the roster. While the Bruins couldn't sign Mike Modano or trade for Chris Pronger, O'Connell committed Glen Murray to a four-year contract, a pickup that went a long way to convince Thornton of the Bruins' intentions.

Thornton and Murray, who were roommates on the road and talked regularly in the past year, were effective together in 2003-04 (Thornton had 23 goals and 50 assists, Murray recorded 32 goals and 28 assists). During yesterday's press conference at the TD Banknorth Garden, Thornton jokingly asked coach Mike Sullivan to name Murray his wingman once more.

''That's his request? Is he lobbying for it?" Sullivan asked with a smile. ''I've said on many occasions that I want what he wants. It just has to work for us."

O'Connell said Thornton's contract rewards him for his previous production (five straight years with 22 or more goals, a 101-point season in 2002-03), but also factors in the development he expects from the center. Thornton, who won a championship in Davos, Switzerland, last season, played in the 2004 World Cup, and was named MVP of the 2005 World Championships, said he improved by playing with elite players such as Mario Lemieux and Joe Sakic in international competition.

''We feel Joe can be the dominant player in the National Hockey League," O'Connell said.

The Bruins expect the new rule changes will make Thornton even more dangerous. In the offensive zone, Thornton often carries the puck while looking for open teammates, fending off clutches and grabs. If the new rules are enforced, defenders would be prohibited from employing the jabs and hooks that previously slowed the 6-foot-4-inch, 223-pound Thornton.

''When players are trying to defend him, he doesn't necessarily fall down," Sullivan said. ''He doesn't get the calls that other players get because of his size and strength. With the new rules, I think he should really benefit."

Thornton also praised O'Connell for signing Brian Leetch, Alexei Zhamnov, Dave Scatchard, and Shawn McEachern. The 26-year-old center said the team should be stronger up the middle, and that Leetch will help move the puck up to the deeper corps of forwards. The addition of Slegr (four goals and 15 assists in 36 games with the Bruins in 2003-04) gives the Bruins another smooth-skating, puck-rushing defenseman, and O'Connell said he has considered picking up a bigger blue liner to clear traffic in front of the net.

O'Connell's focus now shifts to negotiations with Andrew Raycroft, Nick Boynton, and Hal Gill, the team's three most significant restricted free agents. Agents for Raycroft and Boynton said Thursday their clients will not accept their qualifying offers, which expire Monday. Mark Witkin, Gill's agent, said he expected to negotiate with O'Connell next week. O'Connell didn't anticipate any problems with the three, but he said situations could change.

''You never know how these things go," O'Connell said. ''We'll tackle it on Monday."

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