BOSTON (AP) – Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell had just finished showing off free agent Brian Leetch on Thursday when team president Harry Sinden inquired prophetically, “Did Mike announce anything else today?”

Three hours later, the Bruins confirmed they had agreed to terms with center Alexei Zhamnov on a three-year deal, continuing the transformation of what had been one of the NHL’s most reluctant free agent shoppers.

“I knew the Bruins had an opportunity to be aggressive in the market and they already had some good players to build around,” Leetch said. “I’m at the end of my career. I’d like to play as long as I can, but it was important to me to be on a team that’s going to be successful.”

The Bruins have long resisted bidding for top talent, and in recent years they avoided any long-term deals on the theory that the new collective bargaining agreement would include a hard salary cap. When the lockout that scuttled the 2004-05 season ended, Boston had just four players under contract and tens of millions to spend on free agents.

The Bruins signed Glen Murray, Shawn McEachern and Dave Scatchard on Tuesday, a day after acquiring forward Brad Isbister from Edmonton in a trade. Leetch, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, signed a one-year, $4 million deal on Wednesday; Zhamnov’s salary was not immediately available.

O’Connell said that, more than any year before, his pitch to free agents included an explanation of what the team was planning. Part of that was because Boston’s roster was a virtually blank slate; part was the glut of free agents and their desire to identify the best situation.

“Many of the free agents could have gone somewhere else for the money,” O’Connell said. “But I think they liked what we had.”

O’Connell said at the Leetch appearance that he was still trying to acquire a “top” forward, and Zhamnov was one of the only players on the market who fit that description. The Bruins made unsuccessful offers to free agents Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano, who turned down a reported four-year, $20-million offer from Boston to return to Dallas for five years and $17.5 million.

O’Connell said at around 12:15 p.m. that he didn’t expect any more announcements on Thursday.

“Things change so quickly,” he said.

At 3:15 p.m., the Bruins announced the agreement with Zhamnov, who has 248 goals and 461 assists in 12 NHL seasons. He has scored 20 or more goals in nine seasons and had a career-high 30 with Winnipeg in just 48 games in 1994-95.

Zhamnov, 34, was an All-Star in 2002 and has won three Olympic medals – one of each kind – for Russia.

The Bruins have also presented offers to their top two restricted free agents, Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov. But after Jarome Iginla signed a three-year, $21 million deal to stay in Calgary, the price on the two Boston forwards went up.

“It was a shot at what the market might be,” O’Connell said. “The market has changed, and we’re prepared to address that.”

Although Leetch signed for one year, he said he would like to re-up when the season is over.

“I figured it would keep some internal pressure on me to perform,” he said.

Leetch, 37, was raised in Connecticut by a Bruins-fan father and played at Boston College for one season before he was picked by the Rangers in the first round of the 1986 draft. He was the defensive cornerstone of the New York team that won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Leetch won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie and played 17 seasons with the Rangers until he was traded late in the 2003-04 season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He played 15 regular-season games there and 13 more in the playoffs – his first postseason appearance since 1997.

He is second in scoring among active NHL defensemen with 996 points.

Leetch said he would have returned to the Rangers.

“I assumed when I was traded that if I was in their future plans they would let me know,” he said. “That conversation never took place.”

AP-ES-08-04-05 1639EDT


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