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VEZINA DOESN'T GUARANTEE HASEK'S RETURN TO BUFFALO

Dominik Hasek's journey toward his sixth Vezina Trophy wasn't much different than any of the 14,876 shots he faced over nine seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. He flopped around, but when it really mattered, he was in perfect position.

Hasek was among the many who were surprised he won the Vezina considering how he played -- average or below -- in the first half of the season. Philadelphia's Roman Cechmanek, also from the Czech Republic, was widely considered the favorite to win the trophy as the NHL's best goaltender.

Maybe we've been spoiled by The Dominator's greatness, but the general managers who vote for the honor might have been enamored more with his statistics than his play. His 2.11 goals-against average and league-leading 11 shutouts couldn't be ignored, but the Sabres' team defense was the biggest factor in his success this season.

Hasek faced just 23.8 shots in his 11 shutouts, six of which came against teams that failed to make the playoffs. His .921 save percentage was the third-worst of his career.

It was worse in 1999-00, when he missed half the season with groin injuries, and in 1995-96, when the Sabres were loaded with tough guys and little talent in Ted Nolan's first year behind the bench.

So how should the voting affect Hasek's future with the Sabres? It shouldn't. The Sabres know he's among the best goalies in the league and the best player in franchise history. That still doesn't justify paying him $9 million next season.

Everything still comes back to money and the possibility they will win the Stanley Cup next season. Vezina Trophy aside, they would have a difficult time explaining why they're paying him $9 million and Martin Biron $750,000, considering how often we're reminded of the team's financial losses.

Hasek still hasn't proven himself a Stanley Cup-winning goalie. If the Sabres are going to make another run, they must build a better team around him. It means spending even more money, and it's getting more difficult in today's NHL.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to trade Jaromir Jagr, among the top three players in the league, because they can no longer afford his $10.5 million salary. The Ottawa Senators reportedly have Alexei Yashin on the trading block because he's a financial nightmare. Brett Hull led Dallas with 39 goals, but he will be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent after the Stars declined to pick up the option on his contract worth $7 million.

The Sabres have until June 30 to make their decision. Obviously, it's not easy. They can pick up the $9 million option, allowing little room for sympathy when it comes to complaining about money. He should be attractive trade bait as a six-time Vezina winner, but he might retire rather than play elsewhere. They can allow him to become an unrestricted free agent and get nothing in return.

Or they can bring him back at a reduced salary and cut his playing time. Hasek wants to stay in Buffalo. He wants to use the NHL to help him prepare for the Olympics. He would like another crack at the Cup, but he knows the Sabres aren't strong enough to contend next season. Money is the least of his problems.

Sources insist he would come back at a reduced rate and allow Biron more playing time. The Sabres are concerned about compromising Biron's development by making him a backup for a third season. He would be the No. 1 goalie on many teams if not most. Who knows? Maybe he would have won the Vezina this year if he played 67 games instead of Hasek.

The Dominator deserves credit for a great career. He's a great goalie, maybe the best ever. But if the Sabres can't win the Cup with him, why is he here?

Dealing with the draft

The weeks leading into the NHL draft have been loaded with juicy rumors, some of which might actually come true before next weekend. This year's draft should be more compelling than most because some great players are expected to change teams.

Michael Peca is among them. If he isn't wheeled out of Buffalo in the next six or seven days, he could be sitting out into next season. Remember, he has refused to play for the Sabres, so his future could hinge on what happens between now and Saturday.

"I'm hoping something gets done," Peca said. "I realize there are no guarantees. If something happens, it happens. When it happens is when I'll be able to move on with my life and my career."

Anyway, if you're wondering what team is interested in a certain player, it's the Rangers. They want everyone. They already have been linked to Jagr, Peca, Yashin and Eric Lindros over the past several weeks. They're also watching Hasek's situation.

The Kings would be open to including Ziggy Palffy in a package with Buffalo for Peca. The Thrashers are sending out feelers for the first pick overall, which will likely be Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk. The Islanders, who have the second pick overall, are doing the same. They made a pitch for Peca in March but couldn't convince the Sabres to move him.

"Every team would love to have the first pick in the draft," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "You would prefer it wouldn't come at the cost of finishing last. . . . Everyone weighs it the same way (when considering a trade). At what price?"

LeClair took money and ran

John LeClair's decision to re-sign with the Flyers came mainly because the winger was convinced he wouldn't receive a better offer as an unrestricted free agent.

LeClair was set to test the market starting July 1, but he could not ignore the Flyers when they added an extra year and more money to the contract. The five-year deal worth $45 million pays him $500,000 more per year than the four-year, $34 million offer the Flyers made during the regular season.

Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke was persistent in signing LeClair even after the winger underwent back surgery and suffered a staph infection resulting from the operation. LeClair did little in the playoffs against the Sabres, and many teams questioned whether he should be paid $8 million or $9 million as an elite player.

Sources in Philadelphia said LeClair had become unhappy with the Flyers over the way Clarke handled Eric Lindros' dispute with management. LeClair cooled off when Clarke continued presenting major money for a player who had major questions about his future. Now that the Flyers have LeClair signed, they are expected to take a shot at grabbing Jeremy Roenick on the free market.

Bourque's heart in Boston

Ray Bourque said he wants a few weeks to decide about his future, but all indications point to him retiring in the next few weeks with his name ready for engraving on the Stanley Cup.

The Avs have a $6.5 million option on his contract for next season and would likely pick up the deal should Bourque decide otherwise. The $6.5 million is more than Bourque made in his first 11 NHL seasons -- combined.

Still, it would take almost a complete change of heart. He wants to spend more time with his family, which is ready to move back to their home in New England.

"Do I really want to come back? I'm 40 years old," Bourque said. If he needs to ask, the answer is no.

Injuries a guarded secret

It was suspected -- and denied -- all along, but Devils goalie Martin Brodeur was hurting during the Cup finals. It might explain why he fell apart in the sixth and seventh games.

Brodeur appeared in 97 games this season, including the playoffs, the most ever by a goalie in one season. He did not appear as sharp as the series went along after posting consecutive shutouts against Pittsburgh and playing well against the Avs in Game Five.

Colorado's Joe Sakic played through a shoulder injury that he kept secret from his own teammates. He suffered the injury during the Western Conference semifinals against Los Angeles. Apparently, the injury was severe enough that he would have missed a month had it happened in the regular season. He missed two games and led the league in playoff scoring with 13 goals and 26 points.

"He kept everything between him and the trainers," defenseman Rob Blake said. "The therapy he did was after practice. It wasn't around us. He didn't want anybody to know. No matter what happened the next game he played, he didn't want anybody to know what was going on."

Keep 'em in Colorado

Don't be surprised if the Avs make strong offers to keep Sakic, Blake and goalie Patrick Roy. All three are set to become unrestricted free agents.

Sakic is expected to receive offers in the neighborhood of $10 million per season, and the rich Rangers are already in the running. Roy won the Conn Smythe as the best player in the postseason, so few can question whether he's still effective at age 35. Blake turned down a five-year, $40 million offer from the Kings, forcing his trade to Colorado.

All three could probably make more money elsewhere but they have one thing in common: They love playing in Colorado. The Avs also have enough money to keep them happy. Colorado made roughly $13 million during the playoffs alone.

Ratings take a dive

For all the drama connected to Game Seven and Bourque's pursuit of the Cup, it still wasn't enough to draw more fans to the game. Ratings were down 11 percent from the finals last year, when New Jersey beat Dallas in six games.

The average of the five Cup games on ABC this year were 70 percent less than the viewers watching the World Series and NBA Finals last year. The ratings of the NBA Finals this year were nearly four times higher than those in the Cup finals.

ABC's ratings plummeted 15 percent during the regular season, were down 14 percent on ESPN2 and 5 percent on ESPN during the same period. Ratings were 48 percent lower than when Fox had the contract five years ago.

Apparently, Bruins President Harry Sinden wasn't interested enough to stay awake to see Bourque win the Cup on television. Sinden fell asleep and found out the winner Sunday morning.

Of course, it doesn't stop Commissioner Gary Bettman from trying to convince everyone the league has a strong fan base.

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