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Derek Plante is in the unusual position of scrambling for regular work during the Buffalo Sabres' training camp.

With young players such as Wayne Primeau, Curtis Brown and Erik Rasmussen attracting attention and fighting for more ice time in the coming season, Plante finds himself in a vulnerable position in his sixth pro camp.

"It's definitely crowded," Plante said about the battle at center. "They all have the ability to play the center position. A few of us are similar. Some can play offense and some of us are more defensive. It depends on what direction they want to go."

The battle for jobs continues tonight in Kitchener, Ont., where the Sabres play the Ottawa Senators in a preseason game (7:30; Radio 104.1 FM).

In last season's training camp, Plante probably ranked as the No. 1 center. He led the Sabres in scoring in 1996-97 with 53 points, including a career-high 27 goals. He has had at least 50 points in three separate seasons.

However, he struggled through 1997-98 with only 13 goals and 21 assists, and was a healthy scratch in three games in the season's final few weeks.

"It's frustrating not to be playing every night," he said. "Sometimes it hurts your game, because you start thinking about things. You start doubting yourself, and then you don't play as well as you can. So you have to stay mentally strong, and try to come to work every day and get better."

Brian Holzinger, another center and one of Plante's closest friends on the team, can empathize.

"It's tough for anybody," Holzinger said. "I was in about the same situation he was in. He was coming off a 53-point season, and I had 51 points (in 1996-97). We dropped down to 34 and 35 points (respectively). When that happens, people start to question you as a player. People get the mentality that you're not going to get any better."

It didn't get any better in the playoffs for Plante, a 27-year-old Minnesota native. He played in 11 of 15 playoff games, recording no goals and three assists. While the team's success in last spring's playoffs was gratifying, Plante yearned to play a bigger role.

"First and foremost is winning; that's the important part of the game," he said. "But at the same time you want to have some personal satisfaction. Last year wasn't my best year."

Plante was protected by the Sabres in the expansion draft, but a trade over the summer wouldn't have shocked him.

"For the most part, I worry about things I can control, and that (a trade) is something I can't control," Plante said. "Obviously being a hockey player, it's part of the job. Hopefully there's a place for me here. I don't know if that's what they are feeling.

"When you have as many forwards as we do, it comes down to what kind of team they want to have here. There's a lot of good players here, and all of them should be playing. Therefore, there are too many guys to be playing at one time. Sometimes it's hard to figure out the equation. It's good because it's a sign that we have a good team that will win games, but guys get frustrated at center."

Some of the team's depth at forward is sitting at home waiting for new contracts. Donald Audette and Miroslav Satan -- the only only Sabres with more than 20 goals last season -- are unsigned free agents. Both are wingers, so coach Lindy Ruff may have to move one of two centers to the wings giving Plante more ice time to show what he can do. "He is in really good shape; he's skating well," Ruff said. "We've used him on the point in the power play. We've tried him in different situations."

"They (the group of centers in camp) will make the decisions for us," Ruff said. "They will dictate who the centers will be."

"I guess that's the way it should be," Plante said. "The best guys should play."

Most of the Sabres took part in a two-hour workout at Buffalo State Monday. The others did physical training back at Marine Midland Arena. . . . Players who will travel to Kitchener today for the exhibition game will hold a pregame skate at 10 a.m. at Buffalo State. They remaining players will practice at 11 a.m. The sessions are open to the public at no charge.

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