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PECA ARGUES THAT STATISTICS DON'T FIGURE HIS TRUE WORTH

Michael Peca has asked himself the same questions all summer, but nobody seems to have an answer. How do you put a dollar value on the little things? What's the going rate for an open-ice hit? Or sound defense? Or leadership?

In many ways, it's easier to hammer out big contracts for the marquee players in the National Hockey League. Statistics often tell the story of player performance. Salaries fall into line based on goals and assists, shutouts and save percentage. Deals coincide with finite data.

Peca's contributions are more subjective, which is one reason contract negotiations have lumbered with the Buffalo Sabres. He had 20 goals and 21 assists last season. It was a disappointing year, certainly, but he's a key component in their success. He could build a strong case that he's more valuable than others who are more productive offensively.

But exactly how much more?

"Statistics are not what we're basing our whole argument on," Peca said Friday. "I have to play against the best players in the game, and I'm expected to shut them down on any given night. What do you place on that as far as the monetary value is concerned? That's where the argument is. What's the worth of the intangibles?"

Apparently, his idea is about $1.6 million more than what the Sabres had in mind. Peca, who earned $1.6 million last year, is seeking about $4 million per season. The Sabres are offering about $2.4 million annually on a three-year deal. The two sides haven't met in about two weeks.

Peca didn't exercise his right to arbitration because stats weigh heavily on rulings. He might have had a difficult time justifying his asking price. Instead, he chose negotiation. Talks with management are expected to resume Wednesday in Toronto, where the Sabres play the Maple Leafs in an exhibition game.

"We have a strong sense of his value to the organization, his value in the league and how it relates on a salary basis," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "You can't deviate from that because it's not just about Michael Peca. It has wide-ranging implications."

Peca skated with unsigned goalie Martin Biron and unrestricted free agents Dixon Ward and Grant Ledyard for about an hour Friday in the Amherst Pepsi Center. Ward and Ledyard were waiting for calls from other teams.

The Sabres offered Biron about $500,000 for this season, $600,000 for next season and a team option worth $1.1 million for a third year. Biron wants significantly more money in the first two years or control of the option in the third. Talks with him have been slow at best.

"We're not too far ahead," Biron said. "We're looking to agree on something that would make us move forward. We're trying to get some progress. You can't stress out about it. You can't get yourself down. You have to live with it and make the best out of it."

The Sabres open their season Oct. 5, and they will likely begin without their captain and backup goalie. Buffalo last season opened the year without forwards Curtis Brown and Miroslav Satan and defensemen Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener. The Sabres started with a seven-game winless streak, and their record never surpassed .500.

How they play in Peca's absence could affect his bargaining power. If they get off to a fast start without him, his argument could lose strength. If they slump early and show weaknesses in the middle, leverage leans toward Peca.

"He knew this might happen," said his agent, Don Meehan. "He prepared for it for a long time. He knows what he is and knows he's a warrior. He knows we've gotta get a contract that is going to protect him. If it's going to take some time, it's going to take some time."

The Sabres are tough negotiators with a reputation of budging little from their original offers. Their relationship with Meehan became strained three years ago, when Meehan represented Pat LaFontaine and criticized the Sabres for the way they handled the former captain's concussion problems and subsequent trade.

A long stalemate with Peca could raise the possibility of a trade, but it's unlikely and has not yet been discussed. Peca missed the first 11 games of the 1997-98 season in a contract dispute after winning the Selke Trophy as the top defensive forward the previous year. He was named captain shortly after signing a three-year deal with the Sabres.

"It's a common scenario the way negotiations work themselves out," he said. "There's negotiations before training camp, and there's some dialogue. The first two or three weeks of training camp are usually a stare-down. The week before the season starts, it starts to pick up again. Slowly, you start to chip away at something."

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