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Strains in Sabres-Amerks marriage are mounting

The Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans have been together for 29 years, four times longer than the average marriage. For the Sabres, the relationship allowed them to keep close watch on their prospects. For the Amerks, it gave them a regional parent club and an opportunity to turn a profit.

For the past three seasons, the Sabres have shared their American Hockey League partnership with the Florida Panthers with the idea both could develop their players and divide expenses that come with running a minor-league affiliate. Buffalo and Florida are the only two NHL teams that share the same AHL affiliation.

After this season, there will be none.

"We've been in a situation for the last three years that was not what we'd prefer," Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn said. "We'd like to have our own team and control it. We never wanted a dual affiliation. We're going to make sure that we have an affiliate that's our team and our team only. That's all I can say."

The Sabres, always aware of the bottom line, are not going to be heavily involved in the free-agent market for the foreseeable future. Their success will largely be dictated by how well they draft and develop players. Drafting them is difficult enough. Developing them is much tougher when sharing an affiliation with another team.

Buffalo's desire for control starts with the Amerks' coach. Randy Cunneyworth adheres to the Sabres' system, which makes for a smooth transition when players are promoted. The best way to control the coach is to control the team. The best way to control the team is to own the team. And that remains a possibility.

The Sabres have had talks with Amerks President Steve Donner about buying the franchise. Donner appears to be in a heap of financial trouble, and the Sabres are finished being warm and fuzzy. They recently informed him that the Amerks owe them $27,000 as part of their affiliation agreement. The state is seeking $18,000 from the team for back taxes and penalties.

The City of Rochester released a report last week claiming the Amerks were all but broke and needed a change in management. The city declined to give Donner a $100,000 loan, claiming he already owed $500,000. City officials were not prepared to give him any financial relief until other issues were settled.

It's time to buck up.

Buying the Amerks comes with headaches, but it could work if the right management team was in place. Obviously, the Sabres benefit from the location. Players can be called up, pack their bags and arrive here within two hours at very little expense. Another option is placing a farm team elsewhere, such as Glens Falls or Cornwall, Ont.

Where this goes largely depends on whether the Amerks get more support from Florida. The Panthers are looking for their own team for the same reasons Buffalo had. Donner recently went out of his way to fawn about the partnership he had with Florida while saying very little about his association with Buffalo.

It was the latest hint that Donner has become tired of dealing with the Sabres. As often happens in long-term relationships, the feeling appears to be mutual.


>Kennedy's price rising

South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy is an early candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top U.S. college player. Kennedy had 10 goals and 15 points in 11 games going into the weekend to lead Michigan State in scoring. He led the Spartans to the NCAA championship last season.

The Sabres could have signed the winger without breaking the bank and started him in Rochester. This year of development comes at MSU's expense. The decision could wind up costing Buffalo more money down the road, especially if he wins hockey's Heisman, because the former sixth-round pick could argue for first-round money.

Kennedy already has NHL speed and skill. One reason the Sabres didn't sign him was because they were limited in the number of players they could assign to Rochester (see: previous). The difference could amount to more than $1 million over a three-year rookie contract, possibly much more.

"Michigan State is one of the top schools in the country for developing NHL players," General Manager Darcy Regier said. "We knew, if we left him in college, he would continue developing in one of the top hockey schools in the country. Hopefully, we'll work something out so he can turn pro after this year."


>Paying the Sharks

Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been committed to keeping his core players intact, the latest a four-year contract worth $13.75 million for defenseman Matt Carle. He's overpaying the 23-year-old for now, but it kept him from becoming a restricted free agent.

The deal helps sets the market for Senators defenseman Andrej Meszaros. Ottawa also needs to sign Antoine Vermette, Patrick Eaves, Chris Kelly and Wade Redden. They want to keep Kelly, which could mean saying goodbye to Redden even though he said he would return at a discount.

Wilson has been aggressive in staving off free agency. Forwards Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek, defensemen Kyle McLaren and Craig Rivet and goalie Evgeni Nabokov all received extensions before their contracts expired.

Ducks GM Brian Burke, still stinging after losing Dustin Penner to Edmonton, is taking a similar approach. He signed Ryan Getzlaf to a five-year deal worth $26.6 million. Next up is Corey Perry, on pace for 40 goals and making just $494,000 this season.


>Family fighters

Rookie Eric Nystrom had three points in three games last week and is showing the Flames he might be a chip off the old blockhead. The winger also had three fights in a four-game stretch earlier this month.

His father, Bob, was known for his steel fists and granite noggin during his 14-year career with the Islanders that included 235 goals, 513 points and 1,248 penalty minutes in 900 career games and four Stanley Cups.

"I'm no stranger to the old man's fight tapes," Eric said. "I've seen a few things from him. You've just got to grab on and punch. And be able to take a punch."


>Don't bank on Smith

Neil Smith, who spent 43 days as the Islanders GM last summer, isn't likely to hit the jackpot once the NHL makes an official ruling concerning his three-year contract worth $2.1 million.

Smith was looking for full compensation but was expected to receive a small percentage of the total deal, according to a report in the New York Daily News. Smith apparently never signed the contract, which is part of the problem.

Another was that it wasn't entirely clear whether he quit or was fired. Smith was uncomfortable working with owner Charles Wang looking over his shoulder. Both agreed to allow Commissioner Gary Bettman to serve as an arbitrator. The newspaper quoted a league source who claimed the deal was not enforceable.


>Around the boards

* The Senators, at their players' request, stayed in Montreal for an extra night last week rather than spend two nights in Buffalo in preparation for their game Wednesday. "Let's just say there's a lot going on in Montreal," center Jason Spezza said. Who does this guy think he is, Ray Emery?

* Bruins goalie Manny Fernandez could be limping toward the waiver wire. Tim Thomas is the No. 1 goalie and the Bruins like what they see in 20-year-old Tuukka Rask, picked up in the swap that sent Andrew Raycroft to Toronto.

* Todd Fedoruk, claimed off waivers by the Wild, now shares a dressing room with bruiser Derek Boogaard: "It will be a little awkward," said Fedoruk, a Boogeyman knockout victim last year. "I'm going to say, 'Hey buddy, remember me, the guy whose career you almost ended last year? See this dent in my face? Want to be roomies?' "

* Panthers GM and coach Jacques Martin wound up in a mini-controversy last week when his players heard he was shopping superstar and captain Olli Jokinen. Martin quickly pulled Jokinen aside to explain it was only a rumor. You can expect an announcement about a trade any day now.


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