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MAXIM COULD BECOME HOUSEHOLD NAME WITH SABRES

Maxim Afinogenov.

The name might not mean anything to you now. After all, the Buffalo Sabres came to terms with the Russian-born right winger only Friday, and most everyone in Western New York who bothered to take notice likely said: Maxim Who?

Fair enough, but if performance matches reputation, the stocky right winger who showed up at the Pepsi Center in Amherst Sunday might just be a player you won't soon forget.

"He is the most exciting player you will ever see," says Mark Gandler, Afinogenov's agent and a man who's something of an authority on Russian players (Alexei Yashin is another of his clients).

"He not only skates fast and stickhandles at that speed, but he's a passer very much like (Wayne) Gretzky. (That's) not to compare him to Gretzky, but on the power play he sees the ice the same way, from the office (the area behind the net). Behind the net nobody can touch him and the result is always for a goal-scoring opportunity. Always."

Gandler said always. Not occasionally, not most of the time, always.

We'll concede that anything an agent says about his client should be taken with the requisite grain of salt, but in hockey circles people don't dispute Afinogenov's skills. Instead, there is a sense of anticipation regarding the young man who turned 20 on Saturday, anticipation tinged with excitement.

He isn't big, listed at 5-foot-11 1/2 and 176 pounds, and that's likely a stretch on both counts. But he has a hockey player's physique. He's stocky like a Theo Fleury and by all reports exceptionally strong and difficult to knock off his skates. The thing that so excites hockey people is his tremendous skill level. He has extraordinary overall speed, first-step acceleration that Central Scouting rated as "explosive" and he plays with abandon. He skates low to the ice, like Pat LaFontaine, and scouts marvel at his aggression, especially when he has the puck and is driving to the net.

The Sabres soft-pedaled his arrival, opting not to put too much pressure on a young player, but inside-hockey people like the package.

In an anonymous poll of general managers conducted last season by Sports Illustrated, Afinogenov's received votes as the best player not currently playing in the National Hockey League.

He backed that up by being named the best forward at last winter's World Junior Championships. The honor is often a prelude to greatness at the NHL level. NHL star Peter Forsberg achieved that honor as a junior. So did Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and former Sabre Alexander Mogilny. Afinogenov had three goals and five assists in seven games in that tournament. He was, in the words of one scout, "unstoppable."

A recent poll in The Hockey News ranked him No. 9 in their Top 50 prospects list, up from 45 the season before. No other player on the list made such a leap on a list that charts movement both ways. And he was the highest winger in the group.

There are holes in his game, not the least of which is a seeming inability to play without the puck. He also appears to know nothing of the defensive demands of an NHL team, and there will certainly be some question about his ability to adapt to the North American game and lifestyle. His size, a major reason he was selected in the third round in 1997, is also an issue in some people's eyes.

Still there is that sense of anticipation. Even Afinogenov seems to feel it.

Speaking through an interpreter at the Pepsi Center Sunday, he appeared to welcome the comparisons to Gretzky and Bure and noted they are not just favorite players, but players he's modeled his game on. He said he has studied Gretzky's approach to the game, especially on the power play, but that because of his speed he's tried to be more like Bure, who is blessed with extraordinary speed and scoring ability.

He also said it's been a lifelong dream to play in the NHL and that he's fully prepared himself for his opportunity. He said he would "do everything in my power" to make the Sabres roster this season.

That's doesn't usually happen for rookies in the Sabres scheme of things, especially since general manager Darcy Regier came on the scene. But with Afinogenov, things could be different.

The Sabres have holdouts galore, a situation that opens doors that might otherwise be closed if everyone were in training camp. They also have a specific need for scoring off the wing and an exceptional need for a player who can cause opponents to fear their power play.

Afinogenov surely has a great deal to learn to accomplish all that, but the record shows that at every level short of the NHL he's made people take notice.

For a team with holes in its roster and a burning desire for another shot at a Stanley Cup championship, he may well prove to be just what the Sabres are looking for.

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