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Money saved now may cost them later

A little more than a month after the Bruins opened training camp, a last straggler showed up at the doorstep yesterday when Nick Boynton finally agreed to a one-year contract.

If you witnessed the relative state of Boston's blue line in the first four games, you know all about sight, sore eyes, and the 10-gallon tub of spackle embodied now in the person of the 26-year-old Boynton.

OK, maybe the Bruins' defense wasn't a total horrow show, but it was impaired to the point that 37-year-old Brian Leetch averaged upward of 30 minutes a night at his new address. Some twilight tour for the former Rangers star.

Remember, this is a league, thank goodness, that reworked the rule book over the summer and gave the game back its speed and offensive ferocity. Had Leetch been left to what amounts to every-other-shift duty in the new go-kart league, he would have been begging for this off-Broadway act of self-immolation to come to a very quick curtain close.

Boynton will work out today at Wilmington, fly in the afternoon to Ottawa, and figures he is fit to suit up tomorrow night against the Senators. In typical all-hockey humility, Boynton, speaking by cellphone yesterday afternoon, noted that he'll be prepared to suit up if that's what the coach wants. Conjure the image of coach Mike Sullivan as a pit bull, caged and starved to near emaciation, and Boynton as the large, meaty bone that just fell to the floor in the butcher shop.

In the end, Boynton accepted the one-year, $1.75 million offer general manager Mike O'Connell dropped on him roughly a month earlier. It was the same deal that was on the table, literally, when Boynton, his agent, and O'Connell sat down for drinks at a North End eatery a week ago Monday and discussed the stalled glacier that existed between them.

Asked yesterday why he decided to accept the offer now, Boynton cordially ducked out of the way as if the question were a Bobby Hull slapper, circa 1969 (banana blade like a crescent moon).

''You know, to be honest, I don't want to talk about it all that much," he said. ''It's a private matter, so . . . it was time, that was basically it -- time to get it done."

Boynton did not sound enthused.

''I don't want to get into whether I'm happy or not," he said. ''I've signed. I'm going to play my hardest, the best I can in hopes our team can win a Stanley Cup, and that's that -- it's all I want to say."

Truth is, the holdout never should have happened. No news flash there. The Bruins could have picked up the option on Boynton's contract, at a price of $1.9 million (reflecting the union-bargained 24 percent discount on all existing deals), and that would have obligated him to be in camp Sept. 12. Deal done, at a price only $150,000 more (and a whole lot less angst, ill will, and poor publicity) than it took to get it done yesterday.

Instead, O'Connell, mindful of the handcuffs everyone faces with the new $39 million salary cap, first dropped the option, and then offered some $1.4 million for an opening bid. Nothing doing, said Boynton. Come mid-September, O'Connell sweetened it by about 25 percent, to $1.75 million, and Boynton continued the holdout. Now Boynton's back to work, for the $1.75 million (discounted by eight days pay).

O'Connell won when he played similar hardball with Andrew Raycroft, who finally agreed to a one-year deal at $1.35 million (some 35 percent higher than O'Connell's opening bid). He hardballed P.J. Axelsson and Hal Gill, and they promptly accepted their qualifying offers. Only Boynton held out beyond Opening Night, and now everything is hunky-dory. Or so it seems.

The sides can open talks again, for a longer-term deal, as of Jan. 1. O'Connell, speaking by cellphone from Florida yesterday afternoon, said once again how much he likes Boynton and how he would be amenable to craft something longer term when the new year arrives.

Boynton, on the same subject, again sounded like the Golden Jet had just cranked one off the wing.

''You have to leave things open to everything," he said. ''As far as that goes . . . that will be dealt with when we get there. It's not something I have to deal with right now."

Asked if he would have done anything differently in recent weeks, Boynton added, ''No, not at all . . . I'm comfortable with the way things have gone. I like it here in Boston and I'm glad we got it done."

Both Boynton and Raycroft, 25, are young enough and talented enough that they'll cash in on some very big paydays, whether those are in Boston or elsewhere in the Original 30. Part of O'Connell's rationale for playing hardball was his belief, well substantiated in the past, that players virtually never acquiesce to discounts when they hold the leverage in contract talks.

Absolutely true. The Bruins had the book on their side and decided to go by it.

All that is well and good, but here's the obvious: Boynton and Raycroft are not Axelsson and Gill. The latter two, in varying degrees, are important contributors. But Boynton and Raycroft are vital contributors, a top-pairing defenseman and a No. 1 goalie, essential to night-to-night success. Going by the book with those two got them in uniform at very reasonable prices, but it also set the stage for potential down-the-road grudge matches at the bargaining table. The price to pay now is very reasonable, if not downright cheap. The one down the road could be onerous, if not usurious, especially when Boynton and Raycroft are classified as unrestricted free agents.

Asked if he would have done anything differently, vis-a-vis Boynton's dealings, O'Connell mused, ''I don't know . . . I think it was new ground for all of us because this [was the first year of a salary cap]. I wish we could have done it earlier. If this was, say, four years from now, and we all knew how the cap works, and how everyone's contract relates to everyone else's . . . I don't know."

Once up to speed, Boynton should be good for 22-25 minutes a night on the blue line. At least one defenseman, perhaps two, will be demoted to Providence (Kevin Dallman and/or Milan Jurcina the likeliest candidates). Leetch should benefit the most, because his time will be rolled back by at least 10 percent, perhaps more, and the relief likely will allow him to be more effective when he has the chance to jump into the offense (always the velvet hammer in his tool kit).

There are still 77 games to go in the Bruins' 2005-06 regular season. By this time next week, if not sooner, Boynton will be taking his regular shift, and the daily drone of his contract hassle will have disappeared from the sports section. His pay has been settled. Just as in Raycroft's case, what that ultimately costs the franchise remains to be seen.

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