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AS REGULAR SEASON NEARS, SABRES TRYING TO FILL BIG HOLES

The Buffalo Sabres showed they were serious about building a Stanley Cup winner this summer when they offered Ron Francis a three-year contract worth $15 million. It seemed like a sound proposal, but Francis accepted more money from Carolina.

When the Sabres showed interest in another center, Doug Gilmour, it signified a determined effort to find a much-needed veteran playmaker. Gilmour, of course, signed with Chicago.

Were the Sabres sincere in finding a missing piece or were they simply making a public gesture? This much is for sure: They have done very little in the last two months to address weaknesses that showed up last season in their voyage to the Eastern Conference finals.

"We're absolutely going to continue to evaluate this hockey club," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. "It's not as simple as going to the grocery store and buying some more groceries. It just isn't that simple."

With 164 NHL free agents still unsigned, it doesn't mean the Sabres have stopped looking.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have started shopping restricted free agent Petr Nedved, who sat out last season and turned down a five-year offer worth $18 million from the Penguins. Nedved, 26, had 99 points for the Penguins in 1995-96 and is expected to draw plenty of interest from around the league.

The Sabres would love to have Edmonton center Doug Weight, but at what price? Probably too much of one. Weight, a restricted free agent, is seeking a five-year deal worth $25 million from the Oilers. There is virtually no chance the Sabres would submit a qualifying offer for Weight, who had 70 points last season, because Edmonton would likely match it. If the Oilers didn't match, it would cost Buffalo five first-round draft picks.

"We know we're a little off from what we need for the Stanley Cup," winger Matthew Barnaby said. "I think they're going to wait and see where we are at the start of the year and into midseason before they make any drastic changes. We have a lot of youth that we can play with. There's a lot of youth that probably isn't going to play here in a while that we can afford to trade off, even draft picks."

The Sabres' plans are simple. They want to see whether they can find scoring from their youth. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff is expecting more offense from Barnaby, who had five goals in 72 games during the regular season before leading the team with seven in 15 playoff games. The Sabres also want more from Michal Grosek, Vaclav Varada and Curtis Brown, among others.

"It's time to evaluate right now what we need," Ruff said. "It's evaluating what these kids can do. If they're not ready, we have to go find a guy. We have some guys in mind, but we don't want to panic after three or four games."

The Sabres also are looking for a veteran defenseman. Among those free agents who could fit into the Sabres' plans are Francois Leroux, a physical 6-foot-6, 246-pounder, and 14-year veteran James Patrick.

Leroux, remembered in Buffalo for delivering the check that gave Pat LaFontaine a serious concussion two years ago, played for Pittsburgh and Colorado last season. The smooth skating Patrick had 17 assists and was a plus-9 for a Calgary team that missed the playoffs.

Marty McSorley, a 15-year veteran, also is unrestricted and unsigned. He made $1.3 million last season.

"We're always looking to add," Ruff said. "We've talked about a defenseman for a long time, and we're still looking. I don't know if Rumon Ndur or Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre are ready to play. Maybe they're physical enough, but maybe they're not ready for this league yet."

The Sabres are expected to keep four centers on the roster, although two could be moved to wing depending on the contract status of Donald Audette and Miroslav Satan. Still, at least one center could be traded during the season if not sooner.

"Everybody has it in the back of their minds that something is going to happen this year," winger Rob Ray said. "We need somebody on the point to play a physical game. We need a little offense. You can't always fill your needs in free agency. Sometimes, you have to wait and make a deal."

The Sabres' first goal is to sign defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Regier said talks have progressed in recent weeks, but no deal was imminent Saturday.

In addition to Zhitnik, Audette and Satan, the Sabres have been without Mike Wilson throughout training camp -- leaving them without their top three scorers and biggest defenseman. None were close to reaching deals Saturday.

"The first moves that need to be made are getting the guys back in camp," captain Michael Peca said. "Once we get those guys back, we can start building."
The Sabres are still looking for their first preseason win against NHL competition this season. Buffalo dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to the Washington Capitals in a game played in Norfolk, Va., Saturday night. The Sabres are 0-5 in preseason.

Ken Klee had the game-winner at 1:49 of overtime; he also had the game-tying goal in the third period for the Capitals. Yogi Svejkovsky had Washington's other goal.

Barnaby and Varada had goals for the Sabres.

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