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SABRES HOPE IT'S WHAT'S UP FRONT THAT COUNTS

The Buffalo Sabres didn't deal Michael Peca or Dominik Hasek on Saturday, but they certainly used forward thinking when it came to their draft picks.

The Sabres selected three centers and a winger during the opening three rounds of the 2001 NHL draft at the National Car Rental Center.

"I think we focused in on forwards and even more on center ice," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "It's an important position, and we needed to add that depth. . . . We've gone a long ways in addressing that position.

"We added a variation of skill and grit and toughness. You're hopeful you can make them National Hockey League players. Chances are, some of them will play."

Buffalo made center Jiri Novotny of the Czech Republic its first-round choice, the 22nd overall.

The Sabres also grabbed three 18-year-old Canadian juniors in the second round, taking centers Derek Roy and Chris Thorburn and right wing Jason Pominville.

The Sabres have only two selections remaining as the draft concludes today with Rounds 4-9. They have a fifth rounder (No. 140) and an eighth rounder (No. 247), but they could always acquire more choices through trades.

Regardless of how many prospects Buffalo drafts, none is expected to play in the NHL any time soon.

"These kids are just 18 years old," Regier said. "Now the focus goes on us and our ability to develop them. It takes so much time to develop these kids and so much effort."

Novotny, who doesn't turn 18 until August, was rated the 11th-best European skater by NHL Central Scouting and the 17th-best player overall by The Hockey News. But Novotny generated inconsistent reports from scouts, some of whom consider him a third-line NHL player.

The 6-foot-2, 194-pound Novotny split 2000-01 between two Czech teams, recording 10 goals and 14 assists in 52 games. The Sabres, however, find his potential attractive.

"He may not have played well technically in some games, but he never stopped working, and you can't teach that," Sabres director of player personnel Don Luce said.

"He can mature. He's going to grow some more. He's going to up his skill level. You take all that into consideration, and we like this pick."

Novotny, who is under contract with Ceske Budejovice for one more year, was relieved the draft process was over, especially considering the negative reports that had circulated.

"I feel very honored to be drafted by Buffalo in the first round," Novotny said through a translator. "This is something that's fantastic.

"I'm very glad the pressure is gone because it was such excitement for me. But I know this is just the beginning of my journey. I need to work on myself and prove I'm a great player. The pressure is gone for a moment, but it's going to be much more pressure in the future."

Novotny acknowledged the doubts expressed by some scouts, noting their knocks compel him.

"When somebody is criticizing me, I'm trying to show them the best and maybe prove to them they're wrong," Novotny said.

"I hope (Sabres) fans are going to see me there soon. I'm very keen on playing there. I want to help the team and maybe someday win the Stanley Cup."

Roy, selected 32nd overall, was taken with a pick acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Chris Gratton deal.

Roy was rated the 25th-best North American skater and recorded 42 goals and 39 assists in 65 games for Kitchener. But his 5-8, 187-pound frame was a deterrent for most teams.

"Every (pre-draft) interview I went to in Toronto was, 'What about your size? What about your size?' " Roy said. "The size doesn't bother me, and if you let it get to you it will make you play bad.

"I just go out and play my game and that's using skill and being aggressive. I just try to go out, minute after minute, and play my game."

Added Regier: "Our scouts feel very confident about his skill level and believe that he will more than make up for that perceived disadvantage (of size)."

Thorburn was selected 50th overall with a compensatory pick the Sabres received for being unable to sign 1999's first-round choice, Barrett Heisten, earlier this month. Heisten used an NHL loophole to become an unrestricted free agent and recently signed with the New York Rangers.

Thorburn was rated the 26th-best North American skater and was listed by The Hockey News as its 36th-best prospect overall. The 6-2, 190-pounder notched 22 goals and 32 assists in 66 games for North Bay.

"I have a lot of improvement to do," Thorburn said. "There's a different kind of presure bestowed upon me. There's always going to be a Sabre watching me, and I have to impress him at all times. It's going to be through my work ethic that I'm going to make it."

Buffalo took Pominville with the 55th overall selection. The 5-11, 174-pounder registered 46 goals and 67 assists in 71 games for Shawinigan. He was rated as the 22nd-best North American skater.

Four picks before Thorburn was taken, the Carolina Hurricanes selected center Michael Zigomanis. The Sabres drafted Zigomanis in 1999 but failed to procure him -- despite reaching contractual terms -- because of a clerical error at the NHL's deadline to sign players from that class. As a result, Zigomanis went back into this year's draft pool.

"Zigomanis is a good player," Regier said, "and we made a decision at No. 32 to take Roy and we're comfortable with that. Our scouts felt that was the right decision."

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