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ON HOCKEY

Not buying idea that Bruins aren't selling

We should get to see a little bit of the fix-'em-up-on-the-fly Bruins tonight with the Oilers in town. Andrew Ference, acquired in the late-night deal Saturday with Calgary that sent Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau west, will be on defense. Ex-Boston College Eagle Chuck Kobasew isn't expected to wear his new Boston sweater possibly for a few weeks, still getting over the elbow fracture he incurred at the end of January.

Fear not. The season is not over, general manager Peter Chiarelli reminded one and all after announcing the four-player deal (with the Flames due a fourth-round pick if they fail to extend Stuart's deal).

But in a city where hockey fans have become expert in detecting the white towel, a trade for a "depth" defenseman and a winger with a fractured elbow has to be considered the first sign of early-onset postseason disqualificationitis.

No matter how good Kobasew can be (perhaps a second liner?), he is absolutely no good right now to a team that is beyond desperate in its need to pick up points. The Bruins might have picked up two usable tires in the swap, but right now, one of them isn't even on the rim.

If Kobasew were to return even as early as Feb. 27, the day of the NHL trade deadline, the Bruins will have played eight games in the meantime. To make the playoffs, they probably have to win the equivalent of 20 of their 28 games the rest of the way, so the ex-Eagle represents one big loss -- and that's before he even arrives.

Aside from the current bleakness of the situation -- a fourth playoff DNQ in seven seasons -- the deal has some merits. Stuart and Primeau were dwindling assets, the former more than the latter, simply because it became painfully obvious that Stuart had no intention of signing here before or after the start of free agency July 1. Primeau was a different story, because he was on record as liking it here and wanted to stick around for what he envisioned as a brighter future in the Hub of Hockey. Truth is, Boston management felt the future here was brighter without him.

Now, to the good points of the swap:

Ference, though not big (about 5 feet 10 inches, 190 pounds), has decent speed and likes to compete. A former Bruin who has watched him regularly with the Flames the last three-plus seasons said yesterday that the 27-year-old plays with speed and moxie. "The only thing is, he's small," said the ex-Bruin, name withheld upon request. "He can be pushed around, and I can see why [Darryl] Sutter [Flames GM] wanted Stuart -- he wants his size and strength."

Kobasew is bigger (6-0/195) and younger (24), but he has never been the sniper the Flames envisioned when they made him the 14th pick in the 2001 draft, fresh off a freshman season in which he had 49 points for the Eagles. He is more the "upside" player in this deal, with the Bruins hoping to see his scoring touch re-emerge. However, in 210 NHL games, he has logged only 71 points. And the Flames have given even the Zamboni driver the chance to show some offense. Kobasew has been only a bottom-six forward. The Bruins are hoping that more opportunity will lead to more production, which is identical to the hope Calgary held for him, too.

Next to go? No doubt the bell will toll sooner rather than later for Marco Sturm, the German winger who hasn't been bashful about saying he wants to test the UFA market. It is indeed his right. He arrived here in November 2005 -- along with Stuart and Primeau -- in the jettisoning of Joe Thornton, and now he gets to pick his point of employment. However, now in selling mode, the Bruins should send him packing any day now, even if only for a draft pick. Chiarelli, in keeping with his latest moves, will try to land another Ference or Kobasew, someone a bit younger (Sturm is 28), and someone with at least a year or two on his contract.

Frankly, the only players assured of not being dealt now are the obvious core guys -- Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, and Patrice Bergeron -- along with the Saturday acquisitions. The two priciest left on the lot are Glen Murray (two more years at $4.15 million) and Paul Mara (one year at $3 million). Both have gaping holes in their games, which makes their tickets look large.

But both have their assets, too. Murray can hammer home his half-hitched one-time slappers. Mara can sweeten up a power play and add some skating dash, especially during four-on-four play. If another club is enticed by either one, Chiarelli could make a move just to clear some cap room for summertime shopping.

As things stand, projecting a cap increase of about $3 million up to $47 million per team, Chiarelli will have $10 million-$12 million in operating capital after this season. That will allow him one big play in the market, and no doubt he'll try for a goalie. Trouble is, there won't be a lot of high-quality stoppers in the UFA market.

Jean- Sebastien Giguere (Anaheim) and Martin Biron (Buffalo) stand to be the top two UFA tenders, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Ducks act quickly in extending Giguere (now making $3.99 million). Biron, on the books for $2.128 million, will be out of Buffalo, where Ryan Miller is the clear No. 1. The Sabres will put a more economical backup in place, and use some of the savings to fund their attempts to re-sign the likes of pricey UFAs Daniel Briere and Chris Drury.

For now, it's only mid-February, and there are 137 days left before the UFA bonanza begins. The snow on the ground, and the disappointment in the air, make that seem a long way away.

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