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SABRES GIVE THE COLLEGE TRY TO GET RASMUSSEN SIGNED

Erik Rasmussen is going to be a Buffalo Sabre at some point in the near future. He and the Sabres just have to figure out in the next couple of weeks whether it will be sooner rather than later.

Rasmussen was the team's first-round draft choice in 1996, and can leave the University of Minnesota to turn professional at any point.

The jump to the pros could come as early as next month.

"It's day-by-day," the 20-year-old Rasmussen said by phone from Minnesota. "I would assume mid-August would be the latest I could sign. After that, I have to enroll in school."

Rasmussen is in the happy situation of knowing that he'll be well compensated for leaving college, whenever that is. Rasmussen was chosen seventh overall in the entry draft, and he knows that plenty of money is waiting for him when the time is right for him to turn pro.

"Last week, my father talked to them (the Sabres) a little bit. We've been talking back and forth," Rasmussen said. "We've been discussing numbers. The final decision is going to come down to the contract, whether I stay or leave.

"I want to do what's best for the organization and what's best for me. If they want me to come out now, I think that will be the best situation for me. If they think I can improve in college, I'll stay here. It's not a bad decision to stay here."

The Sabres' organization has to be a little coy about the way it handles Rasmussen's situation, since he is not signed and the team has to follow NCAA rules on such matters. The regulations limit contact between the two sides.

"There's nothing official yet that we can say, only because he's still at university," said Larry Carriere, the Sabres' assistant to the general manager. "The decision will have to come from him. There's no question that we'd like to see him develop within the Sabres' organization."

When Rasmussen does sign a pro contract and start his career, the Sabres hope that he will turn into the type of big center that the team needs. Rasmussen checks in at 6-foot-1, and around 200 pounds. Buffalo's top centers last season -- Derek Plante, Brian Holzinger and Michael Peca -- were all smaller than average.

Rasmussen used his size last season as a sophomore at Minnesota. He led the team with 123 penalty minutes, and added 15 goals and 12 assists for 27 points in 34 games. That wasn't as productive as his freshman season, when he had 13 goals and 28 assists in 31 games.

"I had a great first half of the year," he said of the 1996-97 campaign. "I struggled a little bit after the world junior tournament. I just got into a slump. The puck wasn't going in . . . It just took a while to get going again."

Rasmussen turned some heads while playing for Team USA in the junior tournament. When the Hockey News ranked its top 50 NHL prospects last spring, Rasmussen came out third overall.

"I was surprised," he said about the rating. "I never thought that was going to happen. It's encouraging."

While Rasmussen was busy over the winter playing for the Golden Gophers, he kept a eye on what the Sabres were doing. Rasmussen became an instant fan of the Sabres the day he was drafted.

"I never followed them until then," he said. "It was a great season last year. I was really excited. With everything that's happened (to the team) this summer, it's been a big change."

Rasmussen has been working out in the weight room this summer, and he has skated in hockey camps around Minnesota. The center has been in touch with his coaches at Minnesota in the past several weeks, and Rasmussen says they have been very understanding of his situation.

"The whole coaching staff has been really supportive," he said. "They know my situation. They know the money being offered is unbelieveable. You can't turn that down. We've talked about what I would need to do if I came back."

But coming back to college is not on Rasmussen's mind when he's skating laps in rinks this summer. He thinks about what it will be like to play in the National Hockey League.

"It's been a dream forever. . . . It's always on my mind. You sit here and wonder when it's going to happen."

Don Lever, the Sabres' veteran assistant coach, Monday received a long interview from general manager Darcy Regier for the same position under new head coach Lindy Ruff. A source said Lever has been offered the job and will accept it. A news conference could be held as early as today in Marine Midland Arena to announce Lever's position.

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