BOSTON (AP) – Bruins center Joe Thornton knows he’s got something to prove now that Boston has agreed to pay him $20 million over the next three seasons.

“They showed me a lot of money and now it’s time for me and company to really have a great year, go far in the playoffs, and hopefully win a Stanley Cup,” Thornton said at a news conference Friday.

Thornton, the top overall pick of the 1997 draft, will get $6.66 million for each of the three seasons. The signing, on Thursday, eliminates the possibility of the Boston captain becoming an unrestricted free agent after the coming season.

General manager Mike O’Connell said the hefty contract – under the new collective bargaining agreement no player can make more than 20 percent, or $7.8 million, of a team’s $39 million salary cap – is both a reward and an investment.

“We feel that with the team that Joe has around him now, and his age and development process, I think we’re paying for both his performance in the past and what we expect in the future,” said O’Connell, who joined Thornton at the news conference at TD Banknorth Garden.

“We feel that Joe can be the dominant player in the National Hockey League.”

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Thornton, 26, is the key to the Bruins offense. He has scored more than 20 goals in each of his last five NHL seasons, including two with 30 or more. In 2003-04, he led them in scoring with 23 goals and 50 assists.

O’Connell and Thornton weren’t afraid to throw about Stanley Cup references. Boston last won a Stanley Cup in 1972.

“This team, the way it’s set up with the rule changes, I think that we have to be considered one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup,” O’Connell said. “That’s the way I look at this team.”

When the lockout ended, the NHL announced rule changes designed to enliven the game. Among the changes, the red line has been removed in terms of offsides, and passes can now be completed across what would’ve been two lines.

The offensive zone will be four feet larger, as the blue lines have been moved out by two feet and the net was pushed two feet closer to the end boards.

“The rules look great,” Thornton said. “Without the red line, I think it’s going to be a more exciting game. You’re going to get a lot more scoring chances.”

Bruins coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t as willing to declare his squad a Stanley Cup contender.

“On paper our team looks really good, but to me that doesn’t mean anything until we step on the ice,” Sullivan said. “This team is not going to get ahead of itself.”

Apparently there was little doubt on either side that the deal would get done. O’Connell flew to Ontario one month ago to talk to Thornton. And Thornton said he was excited about the team’s recent signings.

“I wanted to come back, they wanted to have me, so it was a no-brainer to come back,” Thornton said.

Since the lockout ended, the Bruins signed defenseman Brian Leetch and forwards Alexei Zhamnov, Shawn McEachern and Doug Scatchard. They also re-signed forwards Glen Murray and Sergei Samsonov and acquired left wing Brad Isbister from Edmonton.

“Right now on paper we have a great team, we just need to prove it on the ice,” Thornton said.

AP-ES-08-12-05 1610EDT

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