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ON HOCKEY

Bruins cast net, haul in a goaltender

The Bruins' goaltending stew thickened a little yesterday with the reintroduction of an old ingredient, Tim Thomas, into what is becoming a curious, if not eclectic, recipe for the 2005-06 season.

Thomas, 31, was the No. 1 goaltender in Finland last year and the MVP of the country's top professional league. Some 48 hours before the start of Jokerit's new season, Thomas was wooed back to the Bruins for a one-year/one-way contract of $450,000, the NHL minimum, along with the opportunity to try to win one of the two netminding spots on the Boston roster this season.

''Boston was looking for a guy to give them more depth at goaltending," Thomas said yesterday when reached by phone at his Helsinki apartment, where he and wife Melissa were feverishly packing to make a flight that will land Thomas in Boston tonight. ''I guess I must have been attractive to them because I played last season."

By tomorrow morning, Thomas again will be wearing Bruins black and gold, as he has here and in Providence in recent seasons. He has been given another chance, not only because of his outstanding work last season with Jokerit, but in large part because Andrew Raycroft remains unsigned and rookie Hannu Toivonen remains untested at the NHL level.

The addition of Thomas, said general manager Mike O'Connell, puts to rest any thoughts the club entertained of bringing back either Byron Dafoe or Felix Potvin, two veterans who have helped block the net here in the past. According to O'Connell, the club extended a tryout opportunity to Dafoe a couple of days ago, and Potvin was among a number of veteran backstops the club had considered signing.

But with Thomas now the proud holder of his first one-way contract since leaving the University of Vermont campus in 1997, the recruitment office for netminders on Causeway Street has been officially closed. For the next three weeks of training camp, it will be up to Thomas, Toivonen, and perhaps Raycroft, if he signs, to sort out who will suit up for the Oct. 5 opener at the Vault against the Canadiens.

''What Tim did last year in Finland was incredible," said O'Connell, noting Thomas's ''gaudy" statistics, including a 34-13-7 record and a 1.58 goals-against mark. Fifteen of his wins were by shutout, a league record. ''And that's in a league that produces top goaltenders."

The Bruins' net, even with the addition of the ebullient, internationally-acclaimed Thomas, remains at risk. Toivonen has never played a single NHL minute. Thomas has played only 220 minutes, all with the Bruins in 2002-03. Raycroft, with an offer of about $1.2 million on the table, as of yesterday remained in Belleville, Ontario, eager to return to Boston, but unwilling to work for less than a one-year deal worth upward of $2 million.

O'Connell said he talked to Raycroft's agent, Jordan Neumann, Tuesday night in hopes of continuing the dialogue aimed at getting the 25-year-old Raycroft in camp, and the two sides briefly discussed a two-year deal for the 2003-04 Rookie of the Year. O'Connell said he also spoke with Anton Thun, agent for holdout defenseman Nick Boynton. Suffice to say, no one budged.

There is, of course, an implied message to Raycroft in the signing of Thomas. To wit: life goes on here in the Hub of Hockey. O'Connell didn't utter those words, but everything he said, and did, delivered the message. When asked about possible trades involving Raycroft or Boynton, he said he hasn't had a discussion with another club about dealing either one.

''If someone offers you an unbelievable deal, you do it," said O'Connell, asked if he were adamant about not dealing either of the holdouts. ''But I have had no discussions."

Thomas, originally a Colorado draft pick, spent two seasons in the Bruins organization, from 2002-04, after establishing himself as one of the top netminders in Europe, including a number of stints in Finland and one in Sweden. Since leaving campus in Burlington, Vt., he has played professionally in 10 cities and three countries and became a mainstay in Helsinki last season while the NHL remained in lockout darkness.

''He's a very competitive guy," said Bruins head coach Mike Sullivan, who was Thomas's coach in Providence in 2002-03. ''The thing I like is how he competes -- his effort on rebounds is admirable."

Bill Zito, Thomas's Chicago-based agent, has been with the netminder every step of the way.

''His release by Colorado . . . his release by the Rangers," said Zito, recalling Thomas's disappointments along the way. ''To the East Coast League . . . to Finland . . . to Edmonton's camp, and getting cut there . . . and finally, it all pays off. Hey, there's no guarantee here for him -- he could still end up in Providence. If that's what happens, fine, he'll go there with no problem. But now he's got a real opportunity. And I give Mike O'Connell a ton of credit here. There are a lot of veteran goalies out here looking for work, but the Bruins had the [guts] to say, 'We don't care about the press clippings, we think Tim Thomas is the best for the job.' "

Thomas, who could be in uniform Friday night for the intrasquad game at BU, made his emotional goodbyes with his Jokerit teammates yesterday morning, barely able to sleep the night before after news from Zito that the deal was done. He then hurried around town, doing errands before he and Melissa turned full attention to packing up and making return travel plans for a party of five, including young daughters Kiley and Kelsey, and their mutt, Koira.

''Unfortunately, Koira means 'dog' in Finnish," said Thomas, speaking over the cacophony of sounds related to a family packing up for a hurried departure. ''I got him over here a while ago, and I named him Koira, figuring what the heck, I'll just name him Koira, because I'm never coming back to Finland anyhow. Now, four years later, I'm leaving."

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