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STATUS QUO DOESN'T SIT WELL WITH WARD

Buffalo Sabres winger Dixon Ward has become increasingly unhappy with his diminished role on the team over the last several weeks and now wants to be traded unless his status changes.

Sources within the team said Ward's anger reached a peak over the weekend when he was benched for the game Saturday against the New York Islanders. He has not yet formally requested a trade but, the sources said, he no longer wants to play in Buffalo unless there is a change in his playing status.

Ward refused comment when asked about the subject Monday before the Sabres left for New York for tonight's game against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden (7:30, Empire, 104.1 FM). His agent, Jeff Solomon, also refused comment. No moves will be made until after Dec. 27, when the NHL lifts its freeze on rosters.

"I haven't received any indication he wants to go," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. "I have not spoken to Dixon or his agent. I can't comment on anything I know nothing about."

"I even talked to him previous times about his production and everything else, the reason different guys have sat," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He has never, ever mentioned wanting out or being traded or whatever.

"But that comes with the territory. When you sit out, the automatic response -- and we've had it for two years -- is either you belly up and suck it up or you say there has to be an easier place to play."

Ward apparently has become increasingly frustrated with Ruff, whom the winger believes places too much emphasis on statistics and not enough on overall production. Ward has just two goals and three assists and a plus-minus ratio of minus-6 this season.

The sources also said he was angry because he believes he was unjustly targeted for the team's problems and never fully appreciated for his play over the years. He has been benched for four games this season.

"All I know is that with the way he played against Florida, he didn't deserve to be in the lineup the next night (against the Islanders)," Ruff said. "He had no legs, he couldn't play, he couldn't skate. I had no choice but to take him out.

"Look at his stats. We looked at the Islander lineup. They had enough heavyweights in there that I wanted our players to feel comfortable."

One teammate who requested anonymity called Ward a baby who complains every time he faces adversity. Another said he was selfish and the team would be happy if he left.

Ward did not have a point in the first 11 games this season. He has one goal and two assists in his last 12 games but has played better lately. He has hit at least four goalposts this season and has been stopped on at least three breakaways.

Ward, who will become an unrestricted free agent after the season, is also concerned about his playing time because it would adversely affect his leverage at the bargaining table. Ward was granted a $1.2 million deal in arbitration last summer after he put together the best all-around season of his career. His contract figure is about $100,000 less than the league average.

Last season he played on the team's top line with captain Michael Peca and right winger Vaclav Varada, and was one of the team's best penalty killers. Ward was tied for the team lead with seven postseason goals and was an important figure in Buffalo's march to the Stanley Cup finals.

Ward, Varada and Peca have been slumping for most of the season. Ward believes his performance level has suffered because his linemates haven't played well. Peca has one point in his last 13 games. Varada has one goal in his last 61 games going back to last season.

"Any time anybody comes out, they're going to be unhappy," said Peca, who acknowledged his own problems. "You can see it in their face when they come out of the lineup. You want to see guys upset when they're taken out of the lineup. It's more frustrating for Dixon because he knew he contributed a lot last year and in the playoffs. He's probably a little more disappointed in himself that he's not contributing. You can see the frustration on him."

The Sabres could have a problem granting Ward his wish on several fronts, most of which center around his contract and his free-agent status after the season. His name has been mentioned in trade rumors but team sources insist that no other team has approached the Sabres about acquiring him.

There also is a feeling among Sabres' management that other teams are leery about trading with them because of past deals. Buffalo was considered a big winner in several trades. Jason Dawe, two years ago, was sent to the New York Islanders for Paul Kruse and Jason Holland. The Islanders waived Dawe last season, and he's now out of the NHL. Stu Barnes for Matthew Barnaby and Rhett Warrener and a draft pick for Mike Wilson also were considered one-sided deals for the Sabres.

Ward is expected to be back in the lineup tonight against the Rangers. He skated on a line with center Wayne Primeau and Varada during the hour-long workout Monday.

"(A trade) can happen both ways," Peca said. "You see Matthew Barnaby and it seemed to benefit him. You look at Jason Dawe, and it seemed to be the downfall of his career. You always hope a guy can stick around and work out his problems here and get going in the right direction."

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