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MAXIMUM IMPACT
LANGUAGE BARRIER KEEPS RUSSIAN ROOKIE FROM HEARING HIGH PRAISE IN SABRES CAMP

Michael Peca called him the next Pavel Bure and expects him to score 40 or 50 goals before long. Geoff Sanderson said he's the Sabres' best skater and puckhandler in training camp. Dixon Ward used the word "dynamic."

The best thing about all the glowing endorsements extended to Maxim Afinogenov is that the Russian winger has heard none of them. He was asked Thursday whether he understood English and responded with a shy smile and a wink before closing his forefinger and thumb to a near pinch.

About this much.

"It's good because I don't want to know what people think about me," Afinogenov said through Alexei Zhitnik, the only other Russian-speaking Sabre. "If I don't know, then I'm not going to have a lot of pressure to score. I don't care. I'm trying to play hockey in the system. From my point of view, it's a good situation."

For now, Afinogenov can escape into his own world, away from the hubbub surrounding his performance since the start of training camp. His teammates could tell him to his face that he's the worst thing since disco and he wouldn't know the difference.

It doesn't matter.

There's no denying in English, Czech or Chinese that the Sabres have a special talent on their hands. Not since Alexander Mogilny defected from Russia in 1989 has Buffalo had such a gifted rookie pushing for a roster spot.

Afinogenov (A-FINN-o-GENN-ov) turned 20 three weeks ago and has never played a single shift in the NHL, but the Sabres already envisioned his potential.

"His potential? Oh, man, his potential is through the roof," Sanderson said. "Some coaching is all he needs. He has all the tools and everything you can't teach. Everything he doesn't have can be taught. Once he learns the way you have to play in the NHL, to play both ways, he's going to be awesome."

Sabres fans can get their first look at Afinogenov tonight when Buffalo plays Washington in Marine Midland Arena (7 p.m., 104.1 FM). Goalie Dominik Hasek is expected to play the first two periods in his first game since undergoing offseason surgery.

Afinogenov has one goal and one assist in four exhibition games. He has 11 shots on goal and a bucketful of scoring chances. How well he plays in the last three exhibition games and how many free agents remain unsigned should decide whether he starts the season in Buffalo or Rochester.

"I don't think there's any way he can't be on the team this year," Peca said. "He's been one of our top forwards in training camp and the preseason, and he's going to continue to get better and more comfortable. He's a kid that's going to start to (develop). He's going to be a 40- or 50-goal guy."

Afinogenov, a third-rounder in1997, has been playing right wing on a line with Peca and Ward through most of training camp. They will be together tonight, but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said he would probably have Erik Rasmussen on the line for the season opener.

Afinogenov could be on a line with speedsters Sanderson and Brian Holzinger. Afinogenov might be faster than both, and he might already have better hands than both.

"The one thing you can't hide from is that we need offense," Ruff said. "He's very talented offensively and always created chances. He might give up a little bit going the other way, but you have to expect a little of that."

Ruff would love to put Afinogenov in the lineup and count on 40 goals, especially if they start the season without wingers Miroslav Satan and Vaclav Varada and center Curtis Brown because of contract disputes.

It's not that easy.

Afinogenov is willing to play defense, but he's still unaccustomed to the style played in the NHL. He's a good passer, but he has shown a tendency for trying to do too much by himself. He blew past a defenseman during a one-on-one drill in practice Thursday, but he was easily handled in another.

"With a guy like that, you don't want to screw with their game too much," Peca said. "This kid is going to become a Pavel Bure-type player and you can't tell him to forget about (offense) and worry about defense. He's got the capabilities of playing responsibly defensively. We're not going to take anything away from him offensively."

Bure, of course, is considered the NHL's top Russian player. He's scored 50 goals or more three times before missing most of last season with the Florida Panthers. He was 20 when his career started in Vancouver.

The Sabres have made sure over the years that their young prospects came along slowly by starting in Rochester and playing their way into the NHL. Mogilny was 20 when his career started in Buffalo. Afinogenov doesn't appear to be far behind.

"Everybody knows what he can do," Zhitnik said. "In game situations, sometimes it takes a long time to adjust. Sometimes, it takes 10 or 15 games. Max is going to be all right."

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