WILMINGTON, Mass. (AP) – It’s almost 2 p.m., and Zdeno Chara hasn’t eaten lunch.

A third round of media interviews awaits, then the weight room, and only then can the Boston Bruins captain get to the team barbecue and fill his 6-foot-9 frame with the calories needed to get him ready for the regular season opener Friday night.

The biggest prize of the free agent market – the biggest player in the NHL, in fact – Chara was given a five-year, $37.5 million contract to help turn the Original Six franchise around after it plummeted to the bottom of the Boston consciousness and the Northeast Division standings.

His impact is already visible in the captain’s “C” on his sweater and the engraved plaque in the dressing room that recognizes him as one of the team’s hardest workers in the offseason conditioning program.

“The whole environment’s changed,” he said this week as he prepared for the opener against the Florida Panthers. “But it’s a team game. You can’t just pick one guy and say, ‘This guy is going to change everything in a day.’ It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re going to have to work hard.”

Boston hasn’t won a playoff series since 1999 or a Stanley Cup since ’72, when Bobby Orr led the Big Bad Bruins to their second title in three years. Since then, the franchise has earned a reputation as unwilling to spend the money needed to climb out of mediocrity.

Things appeared to have changed last year, when the Bruins traded the soon-to-be MVP of the league, Joe Thornton, and fellow former first-round draft pick Sergei Samsonov but still finished with a 29-37-16 and missed the playoffs.

General manager Mike O’Connell was replaced with Peter Chiarelli. Coach Mike Sullivan was replaced with Dave Lewis. New players were brought in, including Chara and free agent forward Marc Savard, who signed a four-year deal worth $20 million.

“We’re all looking forward to the season,” said forward Glen Murray, whose production dropped once Thornton wasn’t there to pass him the puck. “With all the new faces around, it’s refreshing. Everyone’s got a little hop in their step.”

That includes Lewis, the former Red Wings coach who is trying to get all the pieces to fit together. Lewis waited until Thursday afternoon to announce Tim Thomas would start over Hannu Toivonen on Friday night against the Panthers. He still hasn’t decided how he’ll split up their duties during the season.

Thomas started last season with Providence of the AHL, then went 12-13-10 with a 2.76 goals-against average after coming to Boston and filling in – playing 18 straight games at one point – when Toivonen was injured. Toivonen was 9-5-4 with a 2.63 GAA last year, but he missed the final 41 games of the season with a sprained ankle.

Top holdovers from last year include Murray and 21-year-old Patrice Bergeron, who led the team with 31 goals and 73 points. Phil Kessel, the fifth player chosen in this year’s draft, agreed to leave Minnesota after his freshman season.

But nagging aches and pains have kept Lewis from seeing how his team looks.

“We haven’t had the lineup together yet in any of the games,” he said. “I’m going to get a better feel for what everybody can do.

“That’s not going to happen in two games. That’s going to be a growth period.”

AP-ES-10-05-06 1334EDT


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