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RUMOR HAS IT: DRAFT DAY COULD BE A DEAL DAY

The way rumors are being hurled around sultry South Florida, you would think the sport was jai-alai, not hockey.

Welcome to NHL draft weekend. Please strap on your helmets and watch out for flying speculation.

One odd rumor that whizzed out of nowhere Friday had Buffalo, Detroit and Calgary swinging a three-way deal to bring Derek Morris to the Sabres, place Michael Peca with the Red Wings and send Chris Osgood to the Flames.

A veteran NHL scout discovered earlier in the day his team was hot to trot for Dominik Hasek by reading it in a newspaper. "It says right here we want him pretty bad," he declared with a raised eyebrow and a chuckle.

Then there was speculation the Florida Panthers were going to ship center Rob Niedermayer to Buffalo.

And a report of a more national scope claimed it was a done deal Eric Lindros was getting traded to the Red Wings, maybe for Sergei Fedorov.

Most of the rumors flying about are strange. That, however, doesn't mean some might turn out to be legitimate.

As the NHL gathers at the National Car Rental Center today and Sunday for the draft, the actual process of selecting top prospects could become an afterthought if teams pull the trigger to acquire even a couple of the studs on the trading block.

Sabres fans will be eager to see if Hasek, the $9 million option man, and Peca, the unsigned restricted free agent, get dealt. But there is a veritable All-Star roster of others around the league who could be sent packing.

Some of the big names possibly up for grabs include Jaromir Jagr and Lindros as well as restricted free agents Alexei Yashin and Doug Weight. Even some lesser names such as Jyrki Lumme and Aaron Ward could be in the mix.

There are many top-shelf players in a similar position as Hasek, who will become an unrestricted free agent July 1 if the Sabres decline to exercise his option. Those players include Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Patrick Roy, Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick and Alexander Mogilny.

And by virtue of the fact that Peca and Hasek could be dealt for the right price this weekend, the Sabres could be a candidate to, at the very least, improve its draft situation.

"I know there's a lot of speculation out there about a lot of activity," Sabres director of player personnel Don Luce said. "It will heat up (even more). There will be talk.

"But there's been years we've had the same feeling and had a quiet draft. You never know. We go in with the idea that we have to be ready for anything. Heading in at top speed and then slowing down is a lot easier than having to pick up speed once you get there."

One significant trade took place Friday.

The Phoenix Coyotes obtained winger Sergei Berezin from the Toronto Maple Leafs for the rights to holdout winger Mikael Renberg. The Leafs then signed Renberg, who played last season in the Swedish Elite League.

The Coyotes have been a major player in the Peca sweepstakes. But the former Selke Trophy winner doesn't think Berezin's acquisition eliminates the Coyotes as a suitor.

"This is a trade that's been in the works for quite a while, and Berezin's a winger, so I don't think this affects me at all," Peca said.

Several additional teams remain interested in Peca's services. Those reported most often are the Atlanta Thrashers, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and New York Rangers. The Panthers also have made a late bid.

Peca on Thursday was cautiously confident a deal could be made this weekend, but his outlook was much more positive on Friday.

"I'm pretty optimistic," he said, noting he had multiple conversations Friday with agent Don Meehan. "He's indicated to me a couple times that things are picking up, and Buffalo's got a lot of teams they're talking to right now. So now it comes down to best possible trade offer if they choose to make a trade at all.

"But I can't help but think there will be (a trade)."

Added Meehan: "I was aware of substantial offers made prior to the trading deadline (in March), and nothing has changed in that regard. There still are opportunities, and I'm sure (the Sabres) are going to review those opportunities more seriously than prior to the trading deadline."

Regardless of what happens to Peca and Hasek, the Sabres are in South Florida to infuse young talent into the organization.

The Sabres own six picks, including two of the top 32 overall. They have the 22nd pick in the first round and three more in the second.

Luce said the Sabres will draft strictly for talent, stating "we don't have a preference for one position over another."

Some Sabres fans might believe the NHL draft has lost its meaning after what transpired June 1. That was the date NHL teams had to sign most of the players taken in 1999.

The Sabres didn't sign that year's No. 1 pick, Barrett Heisten. They also bungled a last-minute attempt to ink Michael Zigomanis, the Ontario Hockey League's leading scorer over the past four seasons, because of a clerical oversight at the 5 p.m. deadline.

Heisten, because of a loophole, became an unrestricted free agent and signed last week with the Rangers. Zigomanis was placed back in this year's draft pool, and the Sabres could select him again.

"The draft is still very important," Luce said. "The lifeblood of any organization is the draft. You've got to get players that can play.

"The draft is usually for three or four years down the road. You build up in the draft and then you can use those young players to shore up your team or, if you can afford it, you can give some of them up to add experience with a trade."

Among Western New York draft prospects, the only one likely to be taken is Jim Lorentz, the son of the former Sabre and the team's radio/TV color commentator. Lorentz, formerly of Nichols School, is a 19-year-old left wing at St. Lawrence University. He was graded by NHL Central Scouting as the 176th best draft-eligible North American.

Neither Niagara nor Canisius look to have any players drafted this year. Niagara goaltender Rob Bonk has the best chance, however remote. As a freshman last season, the Fenton, Mich., native went 12-13-2 with a 2.62 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage.

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