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Barrett Heisten showed up in training camp without a contract and gave the Buffalo Sabres a free audition. The Sabres' offer wasn't enough for him, so they now could be in danger of losing the former first-round pick.

Heisten, picked 20th overall by Buffalo in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, fits under what's now known as the "Van Ryn Rule," named after former Michigan star Mike Van Ryn. It basically allows 20-year-old players who attended college and returned to junior hockey to become unrestricted free agents unless they are signed within two years of when they're drafted.

The Sabres technically have until June 1 to sign Heisten, but they would like to reach an agreement before he starts the season with Seattle in the Western Hockey League. They were hoping to finalize a deal with the left winger in the next two weeks.

"Once they go back to junior, they're serious about free agency," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said Saturday. "In a lot of ways, when they go back, they've made their decision."

Heisten would rather sign with Buffalo than play in Seattle. He was looking for a three-year deal that would pay him $1.025 million annually, the maximum amount allowed for a rookie. The Sabres have offered considerably less money.

"The ball is my court, but it's kind of in their court," Heisten said. "It's their decision to see what they want to do with me. I'm here. I've done everything I could. I'm just waiting to see what they decide."

Van Ryn was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1998 before leaving college and returning to junior hockey. A court ruled he was an unrestricted free agent after failing to reach an agreement with the Devils. He eventually signed with St. Louis.

The Sabres do not want to experience the same fate, although both sides could suffer by not completing a deal. The Sabres, of course, would risk losing a first-round pick and prospect. Heisten would endanger money and bargaining power next year should he get injured or play poorly with Seattle.

"My ultimate goal is to sign with the Sabres," Heisten said. "They drafted me, and that's my commitment. They gave up a first-round pick to get me. I don't want to (stiff) them in any way."

Heisten would likely be assigned to Rochester if a deal is completed in the near future. He's a good skater and aggressive checker who works well in the corners. He does not have a point in two exhibition games with the Sabres this season.

He played the last two seasons with the University of Maine. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder had 13 goals and 37 points in 36 games with the Black Bears. He had 28 points in 34 games as a freshman.

"There's a lot of things to like about him," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "His skating seems to be above NHL average. He's got some pretty good composure considering it was the first time he's seen an NHL camp."

Kenmore native Tom Askey made his debut in goal with the Sabres, who ran their preseason record to 5-0 with a 4-3 victory over the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets before 8,602 fans here in Blue Cross Arena.

Askey, 25, signed just before training camp, made 10 straight saves before allowing two goals in the third period. He relieved Mika Noronen with 9:09 remaining in the second period. Askey made a great glove save on Jackets center Ted Drury in the third period. He finished with 13 stops.

"It's amazing -- I don't think it has set in yet," Askey said. "I grew up watching Lindy Ruff and Don Luce. Now all these guys are here. It's special."

The former Ohio State star spent four years in Anaheim's organization before signing with the Sabres as a free agent on Sept. 11. He was 0-1-2 with a 2.64 GAA in 1997-98 with the Mighty Ducks, who took him with their eighth-round pick in 1993.

Doug Gilmour, Miroslav Satan, Vaclav Varada and Dave Andreychuk scored for the Sabres. Chris Nielsen, Brett Harkins and Rostislav Klesla scored for the Jackets.

Buffalo has not played this well in the preseason since they went 7-0-1 in 1988.

Defenseman James Patrick could be sidelined for two weeks with a separated shoulder. He suffered the injury in the second period when he was hit from behind by Clarence native Kevyn Adams of the Jackets. Patrick will be reexamined today in Buffalo.

Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley was held out of practice again Saturday with a pulled groin muscle. He first suffered the injury in South Carolina and visited a Michigan specialist last week.

The defenseman hopes to resume skating Monday. He expects to be ready before the regular season opener Oct. 5 against Chicago.

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