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SABRES' OWNERSHIP PUZZLE REMAINS UNSOLVED ON EVE OF NEW SEASON

It appears the Buffalo Sabres will go into a third season operating under the same Memo of Understanding that provides for no clear ownership of the team.

A source said this week that while there has been movement regarding settling the issue of who actually owns the team, there is still no resolution to the complex agreement and the season is likely to start status quo in that regard.

"It's not a hindrance in terms of putting the team on the ice," the source said. "In that regard it's business as usual."

The roadblocks to settling the complex financial situation aren't easily avoided. The main issue is some $32 million in loans that have fallen into default. Under the memo outlining the terms of the operating agreement, the Rigas family interest, the Knox-Swados combination along with other members of the old Niagara Hockey Limited Partnerships, and three banks (including HSBC) have responsibility for the team and its current debt structure. The Sabres have been losing money over the years and Marine Midland Arena has not met projections for income, which have had an impact on the financing agreement, the value of the franchise, and the responsibility for paying back the loans.

If one group or another were to change the terms of the operating agreement, the question of who's responsible for the debt and what to do about it would be altered. Until the three sides resolve that issue, it's likely the official transfer of ownership from the old ownership group to the new won't take place.

The source also said that it wasn't likely that the Rigas family would pull away from ownership of the team, given the vast amount of money it's pumped into the franchise over the past few seasons and its stake regarding its relationship to Adelphia programming and its cable business, but the source did say that the team's debt and the unpaid arena debt is extremely worrisome and likened it to the fiscal problems plaguing the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins recently emerged from bankruptcy proceedings and will be run by a group headed by former star center Mario Lemieux.

"In many ways the Sabres are in worse shape financially," the source said. "There are a lot of problems still to be resolved over there."

No legs to stand on

So what ultimately brought Wayne Primeau and Maxim Afinogenov into the Sabres' training camp fold so early in the holdout fray?

Essentially it was a lack of leverage.

There was a time when Afinogenov would have presented real problems to the Sabres. Technically he was a Group 4 free agent free to sign with any team, but the Sabres not only had the right to match, they had the advantage of Afinogenov bumping up against a rookie salary cap.

The Russian winger was limited to about $925,000 plus bonuses, a figure the Sabres were quite willing to match and were quick to let other general managers and hockey agents know it.

Just a few years ago that wasn't the case as the former Winnipeg Jets had to spend millions to fend off a bid from Calgary for promising rookie (and now superstar forward) Teemu Selanne. The Vancouver Canucks were in similar straits when they were forced to pay a princely sum for rookie defenseman Mattias Ohlund, who had received a multi-million dollar bid from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With a rookie cap in place, fears that a team might lose a prospect to an offer sheet are largely gone. The Sabres stressed that to Afinogenov's agent, Mark Gandler, and the two sides eventually came to a deal.

Buffalo is rumored to have paid near the max for Afinogenov with plenty of bonus clauses, something that likely won't sit well with veteran players who are attempting to break into the millionaires club, but under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, both sides pretty much knew where this contract was going right from the start.

It was a similar situation for Primeau, who really had no leverage in his negotiations with the club.

Primeau appeared to take a leap forward during the playoffs, but his poor regular season output (influenced, he says, by a lack of ice time) left him with little negotiating strength.

Primeau realized that rather quickly and missed just one official day of training camp before signing a one-year deal that will pay him about $550,000, up slightly from the $475,000 he made the season before.

Though he hardly had a breakthrough year, Primeau's strategy is a good one. Should he start playing at the level he attained during the playoffs, he would project to being a 20-plus goal scorer and likely would be back at the table next summer seeking $1.2-$1.5 million.

Courting Yashin

For all the noise the Ottawa Senators are making about suing forward Alexei Yashin should he not play this season, their options appear limited.

The National Hockey League Players Association will argue that the dispute must be settled by an arbitrator under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and that the matter cannot be one for the courts because of that agreement.

The league may counter by arguing that Yashin failed to meet his responsibilities by not showing up and playing under a valid agreement and thus the matter is one for the courts.

In any event, the consensus is that Yashin has played his last game for the Senators and at some point a trade will take place.

Sources claim Yashin's agent offered to have Yashin play the final year of the agreement if the Senators would agree to a contract extension paying him $23 million (U.S.) over two years, but the team rebuffed the overture. Yashin has left Ottawa and is said to be contemplating working out with a team in Europe.

Habs say no for now

Ex-Sabre Joe Juneau is said to be talking with the Montreal Canadiens, but the two sides have not yet been able to agree on the length of a contract let alone the monetary value.

The Habs are known to have rejected a request to match a three-year deal worth an estimated $7 million from a team that Juneau's agent, Larry Kelly, has yet to name.

Canadiens general manager Rejean Houle said his team had "no intention" of offering Juneau a three-year deal, but admitted he had dinner with Juneau and Canadiens coach Alain Vigneault recently in a Montreal restaurant.

Houle said he preferred a short-term deal with incentive bonuses. "If he's got offers from other clubs then so be it," Houle said. "We feel Juneau can help us, but we're also looking at other, lesser-known players."

The Sabres decided to pass on attempting to re-sign Juneau early in the offseason after his agent indicated the price would be around $3 million per season.

Khristich left in limbo

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, no team has made a bid for former Bruins forward Dmitri Khristich since Boston walked away from an arbitrator's decision awarding him $2.8 million.

Boston's action made Khristich a free agent, yet no team is said to be in serious negotiations to sign him. Should he receive an offer of less than 80 percent of what the Bruins were told to pay him, Boston would have the right to match the new offer and re-sign him.

Khristich isn't likely to get such an offer. The spin coming out of Boston lately was that he wasn't overly popular in the Bruins' dressing room, especially given his playoff performance against Buffalo, and that the team would be better off without him.

That may be so, but the Bruins can hardly afford to just give away an asset and it's likely the last chapter on Khristich's career in Boston is yet to be written.

New career

Like most great players who look for some way to stay with the game after retirement, Wayne Gretzky has entered the media arena. Surprisingly, however, Gretzky has opted to go the print route and will write a weekly hockey column for the National Post, a fairly new publication attempting to establish itself as Canada's national newspaper, a title currently claimed by the Globe and Mail. In hockey-crazed Canada, signing Gretzky is considered to be a real coup for the newspaper.

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