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He may not go for Gophers

There's still a chance Kessel could turn pro

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.


Sorry, campers
Put that rookie camp on hold. According to Bruins assistant GM Jeff Gorton, a number of visa issues, none of them easily or quickly remedied, will prevent the Bruins from holding a full-blown rookie camp at the start of next month. ``A few of them, mostly the North American kids, might still be able to come this August," said Gorton. ``If nothing else, they'd get a little John Whitesides [strength and conditioning coach] tutorial. But right now, it looks like we'll have to do the work now in order to have the camp in August '07."

Back liner is back
The New England Hockey Journal broke the news Friday that Bobby Allen, once a Bruins second-round draft choice, came to terms on a new deal with Boston. GM Peter Chiarelli confirmed the signing later in the day, adding that a handful of other signings, none a blockbuster, will be announced tomorrow. Allen was Boston's second pick, 52d overall in the 1998 draft, but was ultimately flipped to the Oilers in March '02 for Sean Brown. The former Eagle back liner, a career minor leaguer thus far, spent the last two seasons in Albany (AHL) and likely is destined for a tour in Providence (AHL).

Right man for job
Marc Habscheid, named as the Bruins' associate coach (read: No. 1 assistant) last week, actually was one of the five finalists to be the new head coach here in the Hub of Hockey. ``The title [associate] just recognizes that he's a little more than an assistant," said Chiarelli. ``He was a very, very good candidate for head coach. He's progressive, energetic, and both his presentation and aptitude in terms of video presentation is just outstanding. He's open, and he relates to the kids very well." Meanwhile, head coach Dave Lewis continued to talk to candidates about the No. 2 assistant's job last week. According to Chiarelli, the coaching staff should be finalized this week.

Not his brothers' keeper
Darryl Sutter stepping down as coach in Calgary last week wasn't unexpected, because the Flames' GM/coach planned all along to give up the bench duties in order to concentrate on the front office. Jim Playfair, previously an assistant, now will wear the white socks, which is a bit of a surprise, given the constant speculation that Brent Sutter, one of Darryl's younger brothers, ultimately would get the bench gig. If not Brent, then the prevailing wisdom was that maybe Brian Sutter, once the Bruins' coach, would get a second tour in southern Alberta. But Darryl opted to go out of the Viking-Sutter cartel. ``The younger brother," said 47-year-old Darryl, ``should never be the older brother's boss." Brian turns 50 in October.

Plenty of turnover
As of now (subject to change by the hour), Playfair is one of eight new coaches for the start of the 2006-07 season. The others: Alain Vigneault (Vancouver), Marc Crawford (Los Angeles), Guy Carbonneau (Montreal), Claude Julien (New Jersey), Ted Nolan (Islanders), Paul Maurice (Toronto), and Lewis. Of the bunch, only Playfair and Carbonneau qualify as rookies. However, on the GM side, three of the five new men calling the shots are rookies. The newbies include Francois Giguere (Colorado), Ray Shero (Pittsburgh), and Chiarelli. Dean Lombardi (LA) and Neil Smith (Islanders) previously held GM posts.

Bid for backstop stopped
The Red Wings, according to one well-connected source, were on the verge of handing Roberto Luongo a Group 2 offer sheet worth $8.2 million a year prior to the Panthers flipping him to Vancouver on the eve of the draft. Luongo promptly signed a four-year, $27 million deal in Vancouver. Had the Wings been successful with the offer sheet, the compensation would have been four first-round draft picks.

Capitals need gains
Richard Zednik, whom the Canadiens dished to Washington last week amid bringing Sergei Samsonov aboard, no doubt will ride on a line with Alexander Ovechkin. The Capitals have to fill out their forward talent quickly, and deliver some playoff success, or they run the risk of Ovechkin's enthusiasm diminishing -- and that would be one horrible waste of enthusiasm.

He's in for a battle
Bill Zito, the Chicago-based agent who handles Bruins goalies Hannu Toivonen, Tim Thomas, and Tuukka Rask, returned last week from Finland, where he visited Toivonen and Rask. Toivonen, reported Zito, is feeling great after overcoming a severe ankle sprain, and is looking forward to vying for the No. 1 job. ``I know there's a lot of hype about Hannu," said Zito. ``But I told him, and I tell everyone -- never discount Tim Thomas. I told Hannu to be ready for a battle, and I even said to him, `Look, if you think Tim is coming in there to be your daddy, you're out of your mind.' " . . . The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Eric Lindros, who remains unsigned after his season with the Leafs, recently made stops in Dallas and Edmonton, discussing what role he could play with each of those clubs. There remains the possibility, though, that L'Enfant Terrible will re-sign with the Leafs . . . Contrary to the Internet rumor mill (which runs 24 hours a day), the Bruins are not interested in signing free agent Petr Sykora, who says he won't be returning to the Rangers . . . The Devils, after handing out numerous big deals (including seven years/$42 million) to Patrik Elias, already are a notch above the $44 million cap. And they still have to work deals for Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez.

Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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