Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell has made it clear he is committed to building a competitive team when the National Hockey League returns to the ice this fall.
Under the new salary cap of $39 million, that means balance in salary as well as talent. That philosophy was behind the offers O'Connell made earlier this week to captain Joe Thornton, forwards Sergei Samsonov, P.J. Axelsson, and Marty Lapointe, and defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
Lapointe and Gonchar are all but certain to test unrestricted free agency beginning Monday. Thornton, Samsonov, and Axelsson are restricted free agents. Although O'Connell would like to tie up Thornton and Samsonov to long-term pacts, all three restricted free agents will become unrestricted next summer as a result of having eight years of NHL service.
Thornton's offer, for five years, is believed to be in the $25 million range. J.P. Barry, the agent for Thornton and Gonchar, said the offers weren't good enough. Thornton's qualifying offer of $5.13 million is higher than the salary per year proposed by the team. When Barry spoke to the Canadian Press Wednesday, he questioned whether the Bruins appreciate how elite a player Thornton is.
''There's differences in our market assessment," Barry said yesterday. ''[The offers] must be Boston's assessment of the marketplace and we have a different assessment, so we're going to have to talk about it. In this environment there are still players under contract and getting qualifying offers that are of similar stature. It's not like there's no market. There is a form of market and some of it will stay the same and some of it will change, and we have to evaluate it and discuss it in the context of Joe. We will have a discussion with Mike about the current marketplace and Boston's intentions with regard to Joe. We have to talk about Joe's options, and I think they're pretty clear."
O'Connell said he has done his homework and believes his offer is not only fair, but reflects that the Bruins do value Thornton.
''We appreciate Joe," said O'Connell. ''We understand exactly what kind of player he is and what he represents to the Bruins. That's [Barry's] opinion, but we watch him play every night, every game in person, and I think we have a very good indication of what he means to the team."
O'Connell has maintained that given the strict parameters of the collective bargaining agreement, it's imperative for the Bruins not to overspend on one player, which would handcuff their efforts to round out the roster with talented personnel. Even though teams are allowed to commit up to 20 percent of the cap on one player, the Bruins aren't inclined to do so.
Barry expects Gonchar to profit greatly from testing the market.
''For the first time ever, Sergei is an unrestricted free agent," said Barry. ''We have a sense of some comparable defensemen in the marketplace that we value ourselves with. We're going to continue to talk to Boston. He's trying to understand what kind of team will be there and who will be there."
O'Connell said he doesn't believe the four-year offer to Gonchar is subpar.
''My obligation is to put the best team on the ice as possible within a salary cap," said O'Connell. ''J.P.'s obligation to the people he works for is to get as much money as possible without any regard to a salary cap. [We're willing] to sit down with all parties concerned to kind of explain the reasoning for where we're at and why we're at that."
Barry wasn't happy about O'Connell discussing the lengths of the offers in the media, but O'Connell said he felt he had a choice.
''How we released it was I got a call from the press and they asked me if I'd made any offers and instead of lying, I said, 'Yes, we have,' " said O'Connell. ''I didn't tell them how much but my reasoning for that is if the same reporter calls [the agents] and they ask [the same question] and I say no, and the agent says, 'Yes, we've received an offer,' I can't lie about that. The question was asked directly and I had to tell them."
The deadline for teams to sign their 2003 draft picks or have them become eligible to reenter the draft, which will be held tomorrow in Ottawa, was yesterday at 5 p.m. The Bruins came to terms on three-year deals with goaltender Mike Brown and center Nate Thompson, both 20-year-olds. Brown was taken in the fifth round (153d overall) and Thompson was chosen in the sixth round (183d overall). Boston elected not to sign defenseman Frank Rediker and forwards Patrik Valcak, Masi Marjamaki, and Benoit Mondou. All will reenter the draft. Defenseman Mark Stuart, who was taken 21st overall in 2003, wasn't subject to the deadline because he still has a year of eligibility remaining at Colorado College . . . Gilles Marotte, who the Bruins swapped to Chicago in the 1967 trade for Phil Esposito, died of pancreatic cancer Tuesday in Victoriaville, Quebec. He was 60. A defenseman known as ''Captain Crunch," Marotte entered the league with the Bruins in the 1965-66 season and also played with Los Angeles, the Rangers, and the Blues.