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Kessel through talking

Priority has become outside offer sheet

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009

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Speedy free agent Phil Kessel has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to negotiate any longer with the Bruins, his Toronto-based agent informing the Boston front office in recent days that the right winger’s priority is to sign an offer sheet with one of the 29 other teams.

All of which doesn’t necessarily mean that Kessel’s days in the Hub are finished. The Bruins still reserve the right to match any offer sheet Kessel signs, and if they match, they are prohibited from trading him only for the first year of his new deal.

Asked about Kessel’s latest stance on negotiations, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli responded, “No comment,’’ via e-mail yesterday. Chiarelli responded the same way two days earlier when word first began to leak that Kessel’s side withdrew from negotiating with the Bruins.

When contacted by the Globe earlier this week about their side’s current negotiating stance, agent Wade Arnott claimed there hadn’t been a change in tactics from Kessel’s side. But two sources familiar with the talks, which Chiarelli on Monday proclaimed to be at “philosophical impasse,’’ confirmed the new passive-aggressive approach by the 21-year-old Kessel.

The Bruins, who open their full training camp at the Garden Sunday, have tried to sign Kessel to a deal on par with the three-year, $11.35 million pact signed earlier this summer by 23-year-old pivot David Krejci. However, it has become obvious since July 1, the start of free agency, that Kessel believes he is worth more. He noted to a Globe reporter during last month’s US Olympic orientation camp in suburban Chicago that Krejci’s contract was not relevant to his deal. Kessel also said he would accept a discount to re-sign with the Bruins, for whom he has played all of his three seasons in the league, but it would not be a significant rollback from his asking price (which he has never made public).

“That’s an agent thing,’’ he said.

Last season, Kessel led the Bruins with 36 goals, tying him with Dallas winger Loui Eriksson for 12th in the league. The 11 players ahead of Kessel and Eriksson on the list will average $6.5 million in cap hits this season. Eriksson will earn $1.7 million.

The Bruins, with only some $1.7 million in cap space available, would have to make roster moves to accommodate Kessel at their desired target of upward of $4 million per season. They could deal away a player, such as Chuck Kobasew ($2.33 million cap hit), or dish a player to the minors, such as defenseman Matt Hunwick ($1.45 million), who does not have to clear waivers to be demoted.

If another club were to roll out, say, $5 million per season for Kessel, the Bruins almost certainly would have to accept the compensation package of a first-, second-, and third-round draft pick. All of which likely points toward Chiarelli opting instead to make a trade.

When the Bruins 15 years ago swapped disgruntled defenseman Glen Wesley to Hartford, then-GM Harry Sinden acquired three first-round picks in a sign-and-trade deal. Any club willing to go that high for Kessel, or to swap roster players or prospects for him, no doubt will want to know that it can bring Kessel aboard at their price - pointing once again to a sign-and-trade arrangement. Otherwise, a club could give up assets to acquire Kessel’s rights, then be vulnerable to Kessel signing another club’s offer sheet.

The Bruins, with that Aug. 26, 1994, deal for Wesley, used the three first-round picks to select Kyle McLaren in 1995, Johnathan Aitken in 1996, and Sergei Samsonov in 1997. Wesley retired a little more than a year ago from the Hartford/Carolina franchise.

Kessel, rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, was not expected to be in training camp this weekend, simply because he remains an unsigned Group 2 free agent. He said last month that he expects to play again in early or mid November.

At least three clubs - the Maple Leafs, Rangers, and Predators - have contacted Chiarelli in hopes of making a deal for Kessel. The Leafs in late June offered veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle, but the deal fell apart when Chiarelli and his Leafs counterpart, Brian Burke, couldn’t agree on what first-round picks to include in the swap.

The Bruins also attempted to swap Kessel to St. Louis at the NHL trading deadline in March in a deal that would have brought veteran forward Keith Tkachuk and coveted young winger David Perron to Boston.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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