Phil Kessel, chosen in the No. 5 spot by the Bruins on draft day, isn't so certain about returning to the University of Minnesota this fall.
Despite media reports to the contrary last week, Kessel said Friday he has not ruled out signing with the Bruins and turning pro prior to the start of Boston's training camp Sept. 14.
``That's not the case," said Kessel, reached at his Wisconsin home, when asked about two Minnesota-based newspaper reports that had him committing to a second season with the Gophers. ``I don't know where that came from. Do I plan on going back? Yes. But that's only the plan because I haven't signed.
``Right now, I don't know what's going to happen."
In other words, said Kessel, his position hasn't changed since the Bruins chose him as one of the club's key building blocks of the future.
Asked what he would decide if he had a chance to turn pro now, Kessel said, ``It would be hard to say no."
According to assistant general manager Jeff Gorton, the Bruins last week spoke with Kessel's family advisers (Wade Arnott and Eddie Ward, both of whom are part of Don Meehan's Toronto-based agent superstore), and the sides agreed to talk again this week. All of which made Gorton somewhat surprised Thursday, when he was apprised of the Minnesota newspaper accounts, that the club's highest pick since 1997 had decided to go back to college.
``Well, hmm, that's the first I've heard of it," said Gorton, noting the discussions he had with Kessel's representatives. ``What we came up with, when we talked, was that we'd talk again [this week] and try to get an idea what he wants to do. We're fine either way. We haven't exchanged [contract] numbers -- it's all a feeling-out process right now."
Meanwhile, Kessel continues his daily workouts, both with on-ice and dry-land exercises. He said on draft day that his dream has always been to play pro hockey, not necessarily college hockey, and he reiterated that stance Friday.
``I'd love to play [pro], but whatever happens, happens," said Kessel. ``If that means I sign [now], then great . . . but if not, I'll go back [to Minnesota] and hope to play for a national title."
The 18-year-old center/wing confirmed that the Bruins have not made a contract offer.
Only a week after drafting Kessel fifth overall, the Bruins made the league's biggest splash in the free agent market, first by signing towering defenseman Zdeno Chara for five years ($37.5 million), and then Marc Savard (four years/$20 million).
``How can you not notice that?" said Kessel, asked if he had paid attention to Boston's offseason roster machinations. ``Those were two huge signings. That's just unbelievable for them to go out and get two high-class players like that. Those are great players coming in, and when a team has great players, you want to play with them, obviously."
Gorton will get back on the phone in the next day or two and pick up the discussion. If Kessel is to come here, it won't be for third- or fourth-line duty. He is a gifted offensive commodity, a natural goal scorer, and it would make little sense for him to sign now if the Bruins didn't believe he could get right to work with Patrice Bergeron or Savard as his pivot. For his own good (read: development), the common-sense approach would be for Kessel to break in as a winger, get accustomed to the pro game, and then try the transition to the slot.
As currently constructed, the Bruins have a key opening, on left wing of their second line. Savard is expected to anchor the No. 2 line, with Glen Murray on the right side. The Bruins had some interest in bringing in free agent Brendan Shanahan, but lost interest when the 37-year-old's asking price hit $4 million -- the figure the Rangers handed him for a one-year deal. With two months to go before the opening of training camp, Kessel, if signed, could get first dibs at that opportunity.
All of that is premature, given Kessel's current position of somewhere between first-year pro and sophomore Gopher. He collected 51 points in 39 games his freshman season, and a natural progression in the college game would have him headed to 80 points or more in Year 2. If he could come to Boston, and repeat the 1.3-point-per-game average he posted in college, well, do the math . . . over an 82-game season, that works out to 107 points.
One case-study caution: Joe Thornton posted 122 points in 59 games with his junior club (Sault Ste. Marie) in the season leading up to the Bruins selecting Jumbo Joe No. 1 in the '97 draft. At age 18, he chipped in only 7 points his rookie year. Outside of a few true phenoms (think: Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque, Steve Yzerman), it's best to consider them all just kids -- albeit some with more upside than others.
All the makings of magical line
All things considered, ex-Bruin Sergei Samsonov got himself a nice fit, in terms of cash and potential linemates, with the deal he signed last week with the Canadiens.
Montreal's Magical Muscovite, who came within a game of getting his name on the Stanley Cup with the Oilers after his trade to Edmonton in March, signed a two-year pact worth $7.05 million. Provided a badly injured eye allows Saku Koivu to return to prime-time action, Samsonov figures to ride on a line with the Habs' captain and fellow star Russian Alexei Kovalev.
The Bruins, according to Samsonov's agent, Neil Abbott, did not enter the bidding.
``[Canadiens GM] Bob Gainey was on the phone to us at noon that first day," said Abbott. ``It came down to a list of four clubs -- some of them offering four-year deals -- and in the end, the most appealing offer was Montreal's. Hey, let's remember here, he's only 27 years old, so he can take some risk. If he goes out now and has two great years, he's back to do it again [as a free agent] at 29. That's, what, two years ahead of where he would have been with free agency in the old [collective bargaining agreement]. That's not bad."
Speedy and devilishly clever, the hard-working Samsonov has yet to find that one, true fit for a center. But he also has never had anyone like Koivu, 32 this November, as a skate-and-shoot partner. Could this finally be the guy? Perhaps. Of the bunch -- Samsonov, Koivu, and Kovalev -- none of them ever has had a 100-point season. All three, in some sense, have been looking for just that right fit.
Bruins are free to take care of their own
The largest offseason issue for the Bruins now is to get new deals cut with restricted free agent Patrice Bergeron, and to a lesser extent, Brad Boyes. Bergeron and Boyes made up two-thirds of the No. 1 line last season, riding with ex-Shark Marco Sturm after the Joe Thornton trade.
Boyes had the opportunity to file for arbitration, but like Nick Boynton last summer, opted to negotiate a new deal. Bergeron, represented by local agent Kent Hughes, was not arbitration eligible. Defenseman David Tanabe was the only Bruin to choose the arbitration route, and his case comes up Aug. 4, provided the sides don't settle on a number over the next couple of weeks.
As of 5 p.m. yesterday, all qualifying offers expired, merely a technical matter. The Bruins made their offers late last month, prior to the June 26 deadline, and the offers preserved their rights to players such as Bergeron, Boyes, et al.
``We can continue to talk with them, which we'll certainly do," said new GM Peter Chiarelli, who last week began contacting representatives of all the club's free agents.
Contrary to early suspicions, the market has not been riddled with Group 2 offer sheets -- preemptive strikes by clubs to sign other squads' restricted free agents. In fact, the market hasn't produced a single Group 2 offer sheet this summer -- keeping to the practice under the old collective bargaining agreement. It could still happen, and Bergeron could be a prime target. The fear of a Group 2 offer sheet was, in part, what led Tampa Bay to tie up Brad Richards with a five-year, $39 million offer well in advance of July 1 free agency.
Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.