One of the main cogs in the Bruins' resurgence in Boston is going to be sticking around a while.
Third-year pro Milan Lucic, who made the leap among the league's toughest players and won over the hearts of Bruins fans in the process, signed a three-year contract extension with the club Tuesday, assuring he'll be wearing black and gold through the 2012-13 season.
Lucic could have become a restricted free agent next summer. But after enduring a contract fight with another of his other young, homegrown stars who had hit the market -- Phil Kessel -- that resulted in Kessel being traded to Toronto last month, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli made sure to avoid a similar messy situation with Lucic. And that should earn Chiarelli a thumbs-up from Bruins backers everywhere.
The 6-foot-3, 228-pound Lucic, just 21, has emerged as one of the game's premier power forwards. He established himself as the Bruins' top-line left wing last season and set career highs with 17 goals and 25 assists to go along with 136 penalty minutes. His combination of size, skill and grit has endeared him to the TD Garden faithful, with "Lucic Crew" T-shirts a popular accessory. Some have even had to do double-takes while watching Lucic play to make sure they're not seeing Cam Neely reincarnated.
But Boston fans who love their hockey "big and bad" aren't the only ones who have fallen for Lucic. That's what made it so important for Chiarelli to get this done now. Given the suitors Kessel attracted, even with his shortcomings as a two-way player and his injury history, one could have expected a free-agent feeding frenzy for Lucic.
Imagine if Lucic's hometown Vancouver Canucks or the Calgary Flames or the Toronto Maple Leafs had the opportunity to present Lucic with an offer sheet Boston couldn't match (or worse, could match but with heavy salary-cap consequences). Those teams could have justified such a move because of the way Lucic resonates with fans in Canada, as well as his winning track record. Lucic's Vancouver team in the Western Hockey League won the Memorial Cup, and the Bruins reached the playoffs for the first time since the lockout once Lucic joined the lineup. The addition of Lucic in Toronto or Calgary would have been seen as more than just acquiring a great player, it would've been considered a gift to a nation.
Lucic has made such an impact he was invited to the Hockey Canada Olympic orientation camp despite lacking the offensive numbers normally required of such an honor. Lucic's value is no longer a secret. But Chiarelli's aggressive move makes it clear the GM had no intention of letting him get away.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. He has been on the Bruins beat since the lockout for numerous publications and has been covering the Boston sports scene for a decade. Send any questions for Matt to his mailbag and he might answer them in his Bruins mailbag.