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Petr Nedved a Buffalo Sabre?

Hey, don't laugh. Despite Nedved's recent signing with the Los Angeles Thunder in the International Hockey League, there's still a better than even chance that the 26-year-old center will play in the National Hockey League at some point this season.

And a 99 percent chance it won't be with Pittsburgh.

The News has learned that the Buffalo Sabres have an interest in the talented centerman. For the record, Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said he couldn't talk about Nedved because he is under contract to another team and that would be tampering.

However, Regier can't disregard that Nedved would be a good second choice for the Sabres now that they've lost out in the bidding for Ron Francis.

And Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick can be almost certain that Nedved will never return to the Penguins.

"If one team offered me $20 million and Pittsburgh offered $25 million (over five years) I would take the $20 million," Nedved said this past week. "This isn't about money in Pittsburgh anymore. Craig understands that, but his hands are tied."

There are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact the Penguins don't have any money. The club offered Nedved $15 million over five seasons last season. They've upped that offer, but Nedved turned down an $18 million pact. It's likely the Penguins will go no higher. For one thing, the club is embroiled in a bitter ownership dispute and Patrick isn't likely to make any long-term commitments until Howard Baldwin or Roger Marino clearly emerges in control of the club.

Nedved sat out all of last season in a contract dispute that cost him anywhere from $2 million to $6 million, depending on whether he would have accepted Pittsburgh's offer or they his. So acrimonious was the dispute that Nedved took nothing last season rather than play for the club. He's also said to be upset that the Penguins wouldn't trade him last season when, according to him, the Tampa Pay Lightning made him an oral offer he claims was worth $20 million to $25 million.

The Penguins would have been owed compensation had Tampa made good on that deal. Sources say Tampa instead tried to arrange a trade, but the Penguins didn't see value on the Tampa roster. Besides, they were interested in punishing Nedved and his agent, Tony Kondel, because of what they felt were outrageous contract demands.

Nedved, who does come with some head-case baggage from his early years in the NHL, apparently has come to understand that it's not nice to anger Patrick. He's reportedly dumped Kondel in favor of the high-powered (and a tad more reasonable) Mike Barnett of International Management Group. Barnett has represented many of the big names in hockey over the years, including Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Alexander Mogilny. He's tough, but respected by management because he gets deals done.

Reached by phone, Barnett said that he does have a working agreement with Nedved, but that Kondel is still involved "as a consultant." Barnett also said he's had talks with Patrick and that there is room for "a resolution to this situation."

So how much would it cost Buffalo if the Sabres went after Nedved, who had 45 goals and 99 points in 1995-96? As a restricted free agent, the compensation would be heavy: the cash -- in the approximate range Nedved is asking would be five years at $20 million -- and five first-round draft choices.

It's unlikely the Sabres would want to part with the five No. 1 picks and it's even more unlikely the Penguins would want them, but it is likely that Pittsburgh would accept a combination of players and draft picks or prospects.

Buffalo has a surplus of young players and prospects, something the Penguins could use right now. In addition, the Penguins are desperate to make a splash with their fans, many of whom are still angry over the loss of Francis and the ownership squabbles. Facilitating a deal is the fact the two teams no longer play in the same division.

So is there a deal in the works?

Neither GM would say and Barnett said he was too new to the situation to have an accurate read on it, but Patrick held the door open.

"I'd rather have Petr Nedved in our lineup than anyone we've had offered to us, but you never know," he said. "Sometimes things change overnight. Maybe the money situation will change his mind or in our mind, or maybe somebody will come up with a trade that makes sense."

The door is open and, with Barnett on board, Nedved is almost certain to pass through it.

Down goes Kasparaitis

An aside to the Nedved talks: The Penguins are suddenly unsure about the state of their defense as veteran Darius Kasparaitis has suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. A tear in the same knee forced him to miss the final 35 games of the 1995 season. He was with the Islanders at the time.

The injury happened a week ago, but the diagnosis had been delayed because of persistent swelling in the knee. It was thought at the time of the injury that Kasparaitis was through for the season, but the Penguins apparently tried to buy some time so as not to appear desperate to make a deal.

Sharks' Lombardi blames CBA

Nedved was the second player taken overall in the 1990 entry draft (by Vancouver) behind Owen Nolan. Ironically, Nolan, like Nedved, is one of the many restricted free agents not in camp this fall, but unlike many general managers San Jose Sharks GM Dean Lombardi isn't blaming Nolan or his other celebrated restricted free agents, Jeff Friesen and Mike Ricci. He blames the collective bargaining agreement.

"When you see the breadth of this throughout the league, there's a bigger issue at stake," Lombardi said. "I don't blame the players in this at all. I think this is a higher battle that was unresolved between (Commissioner Gary) Bettman and (Players Association Executive Director Bob) Goodenow."

There are nearly 140 restricted free agents without contracts this season and nearly all of them are out of camp. A great many of them were not eligible for arbitration or total free agency so in many cases -- including those involving players like Alexei Zhitnik, Mike Wilson, Donald Audette and Miroslav Satan -- the tactic is to withhold services.

"I don't blame the players," Lombardi said. "Everyone around them is telling them it's a business. Well, if this is just a business and you're an athlete, you know that you've got one of the most unique forms of labor in this country. You're not going to be able to get another one.

"So if you want to apply American business principles to the athlete, he probably should be sitting at home, because he's going to triple his money."

Lombardi has a point. Two recent signees -- defenseman Rob Blake in Los Angeles and forward Saku Koivu in Montreal -- tripled their salaries.

Confused as all get-out

You can bet they won't try this in the Air Canada Centre.

The Nashville Predators played an exhibition game against Dallas in Little Rock, Ark., last week. A marketing genius decided that fans could fill out a survey, fold it into a paper airplane and at game's end toss it toward the center-ice faceoff circle. The team would collect the thoughts on hockey in the South and the one closest to the center-ice dot would win an autographed stick.

You guessed it. The game ended in a tie. Fans not used to the NHL's concept of overtime started hurling their makeshift creations on to the ice. The more the in-house announcer warned them not to do it, the more they threw until the overtime had to be canceled.

Potvin to Canadiens?

Having butchered opportunities to trade goaltender Felix Potvin to the Florida Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks, the Toronto Maple Leafs could well be turning their shopping eye toward division rival Montreal.

Even in signing Koivu and making him the third highest paid player on the team behind Mark Recchi and Vincent Damphousse, the Habs still have problems. They still have four key players holding out and are getting static from veteran Shayne Corson, who wants to renegotiate. Corson has grown increasingly bitter with the Habs' last two offers. Word out of Montreal is that he could be shopped with another player to Toronto for Potvin.

Sources in Montreal claim the Habs' payroll has been capped by management at $32 million and the team is already at $27 million (U.S.). With four guys to go, one or more of the holdouts is likely to go. Potvin would then fill the goalie gap and the salary hole.

The problem for Toronto in this scenario is that Philadelphia is also interested in Corson, a legitimate power forward when he's in the mood.

Wings owner ailing

Scott Bowman isn't the only member of the Detroit Red Wings front office likely to miss the start of the season and beyond. Wings owner Mike Ilitch this past week was hospitalized with dizzy spells just eight months after undergoing his second heart bypass surgery.

Ilitch, 69, who was later released, said he intends to cut back on his hours.

Bowman told The News he's still in some discomfort regarding his recent knee surgery and is unsure as to when or if he'll return to the Red Wings.

Mike Johnson's near miss

The early line on the Toronto Maple Leafs' No. 1 line is Mats Sundin centering for newly acquired Steve Thomas and almost-rookie-of-the-year Mike Johnson.

Johnson laughs about it now, but he probably would have finished higher than fourth in Calder voting had he been the clear-cut rookie scoring winner.

He almost was. In a Jan. 6 game against Washington, Jeff Brown was credited with a goal that hit Johnson on the way in. With Johnson holding a fair lead on the rest of the pack at the time, the Leafs coaches decided it would look too cheap if Johnson appealed the scoring decision. But he had only 14 points in the last 32 games of the year and wound up tied with eventual Calder winner Sergei Samsonov of Boston. Both finished with 47 points, but Samsonov finished strong and drove the Bruins to the playoffs. Toronto missed the cut.

Worrell fires up Panthers

Things are a little testy in the Florida Panthers camp and for once the feistiness is on the ice and not in the front office.

Peter Worrell has drawn the wrath of several players with his aggressive style of play. Worrell made defenseman Ed Jovanovski so angry with one check, Jovanovski slashed him in the leg, threw his stick at him and finally dropped the gloves with him during a spirited bout.

"I'm an antagonist and just try to contribute in the best way I know how," Worrell said. "I'm not a fancy-dancy type of player. I'm a straight-forward, in-your-face type of guy."

So much so that his 153 penalty minutes in 19 games last season put him on pace for 660 in an 82-game season -- a tad more than Dave Schultz's NHL record of 472.

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