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HASEK PACT SETS STAGE FOR RUN AT CUP

Assuming the Buffalo Sabres don't exercise their newly regained trading rights in the Dominik Hasek deal, the Sabres have three, possibly four, years to contend for a Stanley Cup championship.

That's pretty much the timetable that comes into play off the newly signed Hasek deal, a quality contract that appears to be a good deal for the player and the club.

In signing the three-time Vezina Trophy winner and reigning National Hockey League Most Valuable Player to a long-term deal, the Sabres appear to be sending a message to the team and especially its fans that it is committed to winning. That's a nice touch after years of watching veterans leave because of budget cuts and constant warnings of impending financial doom.

True, the new ownership got the no-trade clause out of Hasek's pact and could, at a certain point, send him the way of Pat LaFontaine, Garry Galley, Dale Hawerchuk and Alexander Mogilny.

Yet there's nothing like shoving a rather large pile of money across the table for a lengthy period of time to dispel any thoughts that this is anything but a long-term commitment. The Sabres are secure in the knowledge that Hasek is the best goaltender in the world right now. They have every reason to believe he will continue to perform at that level for several years to come and they've been assured that he wants to stay here. They've acknowledged that by rewarding him both for past performance and securing his financial future. Doing all that despite the fact that Hasek has had no real success in the playoffs since he arrived in the NHL may be viewed by some as a leap of misplaced faith, but it's clear management and ownership don't buy it.

However, Hasek is 33 and between now and the last year of the pact he will be 37. That's fairly old for a goaltender whose strength -- in addition to his marvelous powers of concentration -- is really in his athletic ability, most notably his quickness. Hasek keeps himself in top-flight condition and can be expected to do so through the third and even the fourth year of his pact. But time can't be kept at bay forever. The deal gives Sabres management a limited but reasonable time frame in which to build around him. Right now, Hasek is the team. The core group is young and appears promising, but it is neither experienced enough nor deep enough to make a sustained run at the Stanley Cup. The short-term prognosis is also good in that the Sabres once again are said to have a good group of young prospects in their system (ranked No. 2 in the league in the Future Watch edition of this week's Hockey News, the third time in as many years the Sabres have been in the top three). However, potential doesn't win the Stanley Cup. Talent, supported by depth (and blessed with good health and a little luck), does. If the Sabres are to win during Hasek's time here, it's clear there is still work to be done.

Sabres ownership just bought that time. It's a sincere and welcome gesture, but only by continuing to add to the talent pool, will it prove to be time and money well spent.

Barnaby rift remains unmended

If I were Hasek, I would have asked for a clause that assures Matthew Barnaby goes to a Western Conference team and that I get a guaranteed night off when that team plays the Sabres.

Barnaby never backed up his claim that he would "run" Hasek in training camp, but it's hardly a coincidence that he went public in his demand to be traded when it became obvious Hasek was about to sign a long-term deal.

Barnaby had been a Ted Nolan supporter and Hasek's long-term deal virtually assures that Nolan won't be back. The fact that Barnaby left the building on the very night the Hasek signing was to be announced simply drives home the point.

Barnaby's problems don't start and stop with Hasek and the way the club has chosen to support him. But they are a part of the package. Barnaby also didn't mesh with coach Lindy Ruff and with his diminished role on the team. Under Nolan, Barnaby was a core player. He got loads of ice time, had a leadership role on and off the ice and was one of Nolan's inner circle, a player whose opinion was sought and valued.

That changed under Ruff and Ruff has to take some of the blame for Barnaby's fall off. Ruff tried very hard to find a way to steer Barnaby past Nolan but he didn't. That's a failure on his part and he admits it.

Yet Barnaby didn't give him much help. The proof is in the playing and in the end, Barnaby knew he wasn't contributing. He admits that a large part of his season was a failure because he couldn't get over the absence of Nolan.

Complicating the matter was the fact that Ruff gave Barnaby so many chances that it began to grate on the rest of the team. Barnaby got ice time at the expense of others, even when it was clear he didn't deserve it. That led to problems for both Barnaby and Ruff. Those problems have never been resolved and a trade really does seem like the only way out.

That's unfortunate and maybe if Barnaby were a tad more mature, it wouldn't have gotten to this point. But in the absence of that, a trade is what's best for Barnaby and for the team.

Barnaby is still young. His mistakes and decisions often illustrate that, but his leaving is a loss. A loss for Ruff, the team and the community that supports it.

He will be missed.

Sabres plan for expansion draft

What the Sabres do in the trade market leading up to the deadline will go a long way toward determining what they will opt to do in the upcoming expansion draft.

It's a given the Sabres will want to protect Hasek, but if they also want to protect Steve Shields as well, they have to expose a certain number of skaters.

General manager Darcy Regier said he would reserve that decision for a while. It's likely, however, that Regier wants to protect both of his goalkeepers. But to do that he may have to expose a goalie who has played at least 10 NHL games this season or 25 games over the past two seasons and has a contract for next season. There is no goalie in the system right now that meets that criteria.

A trade for a goalie that meets the criteria is not an automatic for the Sabres because he still has to have a contract for next season. That's a large commitment for a club, especially when there's no guarantee the Sabres would lose Shields in the expansion derby, even if they exposed him. It's a given the Sabres will watch the way the goalie market shapes up leading to the June 25 draft in Buffalo and make their goalie plans accordingly.

There's also always a chance the Sabres could make a deal with Nashville not to take their goalie and then hand them a player or a draft pick later. ~ Can't duck Selanne's exploits

Most of us in the East don't get to see the exploits of star players in the West, but it's getting hard to ignore those of Anaheim's Teemu Selanne.

On Thursday against Philadelphia, Selanne scored his league-leading 44th goal, giving him 258 for his career. That's the fifth-most after 400 games in NHL history, behind only Wayne Gretzky (366), Mario Lemieux (320), Mike Bossy (319) and Bobby Hull (312). Selanne should garner a great many votes for MVP this season.

Brodeur presents challenge

In Buffalo, Hasek is a shoo-in to win the Vezina Trophy and maybe even repeat as MVP, but outside Western New York, it's not so certain.

New Jersey's Martin Brodeur picked up his 38th win of the season Wednesday night and also got his eighth shutout of the season in a 3-0 win over Anaheim.

Brodeur continues to edge toward 48 wins, which would break the record of Bernie Parent for most victories in a season. Parent, a Hall of Fame netminder with the Philadelphia Flyers, won 47 games in 1973-74.

"It's a record that will be tough to get," Brodeur said. "It would be nice, but I don't know if I'm going to play all 16 games. It's not every year you can get so close to a record like that. My goal this year was to win 40. It still is."

But 48 would certainly get the attention of the general mangers who vote on the Vezina. As good as Hasek has been lately, he was awful at the start of the season. Brodeur has been rock steady since opening night and his numbers in the necessary categories, save percentage, goals-against average, shutouts and wins are as good and in some cases better than Hasek's.

Fleury not leaving Calgary

Don't buy into those rumors that have Calgary's Theo Fleury moving at the trade deadline. Fleury isn't going anywhere because the ownership group in Calgary has yet to determine exactly how high they're prepared to go to keep him in Calgary beyond the 1999 season.

Fleury signed a five-year, $12.25 million contract in 1995, but the final year 1999-2000 is at his option. He'll play next year at $2.4 million and then if he exercises his option, he gets bumped to $2.8 million.

If Fleury exercises his out clause, he is unrestricted on July 1, 1999. Between now and the June entry draft, the Flames will try to see if they can get him signed to a new deal. That plan forces the Flames to keep Fleury at least until June. If it appears there is no hope of keeping him beyond 1999, then they'll make a deal over the offseason.

Regarding tough guy Sandy McCarthy, the Flames insist he's not on the block, but it's known that if someone offers GM Al Coates a legitimate player for McCarthy, he'll move him. The Flames would like to get a package together for Barnaby, but they think the Sabres can do better than a McCarthy, Andrew Cassels deal.

That may be a self-serving approach for the Flames. Cassels isn't happy in Calgary and he's not exactly coach Brian Sutter's type. He's a skilled and crafty center, but is thought to be in mediocre physical condition by today's standards. Scouts indicate he doesn't like the high-traffic areas. On the other hand, he is a good playmaker who is competent at both ends of the rink. Given the Flames' lack of depth at center ice, he'd be hard to replace in the short term.

The lure for Buffalo is that Cassels is the one centerman who was always there when Geoff Sanderson had his best seasons. If the Flames are hopeless regarding a playoff berth on trade deadline day (and that appears to be the case), this deal could heat up.

Murray's future uncertain

Florida's fall from grace and playoff consideration has the Panthers ownership rethinking the future of Bryan Murray. Murray is the GM and it was thought he would go back to that role after filling in as bench jockey for the fired Doug MacLean. But while MacLean has a sweet job as general manager in waiting for the expansion franchise in Columbus, Ohio, sources say management in Florida is rethinking Murray's role with the club.

After losing to the Sabres earlier this week, the Panthers fell 18 games below .500 and were in the midst of an 11-game losing streak and 12-game winless streak.

"As to what we do at the end of the year, obviously we have to sit down and assess the situation, just like you do with a player," team president Bill Torrey said. "In this business, after every season, we evaluate scouts, players, coaches and management. This is a business where everybody is evaluated after every year.

"I'm sure (owner Wayne) Huizenga is evaluating everybody. When the season is done, I will sit down with him and discuss where we're going and what's available. But to indicate one way or another what the plans are is not fair to (Murray)."

Kiss of death if there ever was one.

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