The former assistant GM, who will go back to being an assistant when Peter Chiarelli takes over on July 15, has made Boston one of the more active teams in the NHL offseason so far, signing defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Marc Savard as free agents.
"You can tell that the organization is committed to winning because of these signings," new coach Dave Lewis said yesterday at a news conference to introduce Chara. "Players now want to come here. So there's something going on."
For years, the Bruins were more likely to sit out the market than set it, fueling the feeling among fans that the team wouldn't spend the money necessary to end the franchise's three-decade Stanley Cup drought. When the Bruins did go after big names, they tended to overpay for players past their prime.
But Chara was the most coveted defenseman on the market this summer - and one of the top players overall. The Bruins gave him a five-year deal worth $37.5 million dollars, and Savard signed a four-year deal worth $20 million.
"We were aggressive with him," Gorton said of Chara. "We wanted him to know we felt he was the very best player on the market."
Despite trading away offensive stars Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov last year, the Bruins finished out of the playoffs and in last place in the Northeast Division. Mike O'Connell was fired and replaced by Chiarelli, an Ottawa assistant who was required to stay with the Senators until July 15.
It's an odd arrangement, but not even the strangest one in Boston this year: The Red Sox worked with co-GMs when Theo Epstein walked away from his job, only to return six weeks later. Still, Gorton said he's going about business as usual - not trying to prove a point or audition for his next job.
"It hasn't been that difficult," he said. "One day, Peter's going to show up and he'll start and we'll be ready for that. I don't have a calendar where I 'X' off the days."
Gorton was not allowed to consult with Chiarelli on Senators free agents, including Chara. "Hopefully, he's happy," Gorton said.
Chara had his pick of teams that might have been closer to winning, but he said he opted to come to Boston because he liked the Bruins' young players and the history of the Original Six franchise.
"Hopefully, we can turn it around. It was clear this team is on the way up," he said. "I'm not afraid of challenges. You have to go by your heart, and I really saw that this team has the potential. There's a lot of work ahead of us. It's not going to happen overnight by just signing some players."
Even if Chara hadn't been impressed by the Bruins history before, he would have been converted after walking into the team's offices yesterday.
"Lining up all the great players in the organization, that's why he wants to be here," said former Bruins defenseman Don Sweeney, now the team's director of player development, who joined Cam Neely in making recruiting calls to Chara. "He's in a position to do that."
Chara spent the last four NHL seasons with Ottawa and played for Farjestads of Sweden during the lockout. He had a career-high of 43 points last season with the Senators.
Lewis said he would look to Chara for leadership, character, work habits, discipline.
"People are telling me I'm a better coach already," Lewis said. "He has the ability to make a difference in every game. I don't think there's a harder defenseman in the league to play against."
Signing him paid immediate dividends.
Right after agreeing to terms with his new defenseman, Gorton was on the phone with Savard's agent, telling him, "We got Chara." Forward Shean Donovan, who had career bests of 18 goals and 24 assists in 2003-04 when the Flames reached the Stanley Cup finals, agreed the next day to a two-year deal.
"It became a lot easier to get Savard and Donovan," Gorton said. "This is a big day for our franchise. We're very thankful to have the big man in Boston and have him in place for our turnaround."
Just how big was evident when Chara slipped on the No. 44 jersey the Bruins printed up for the news conference. It barely reached the waist of the 6-foot-9 Slovak, who is the biggest player in the NHL.
"We ordered a jersey for him, the biggest jersey we could find," Gorton said. "And it's not big enough, and he doesn't even have shoulder pads on."