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It was easy for those in underlying tax brackets to condemn Michael Peca as nothing more than another spoiled athlete when he cut his ties with the Buffalo Sabres. It was possible to dismiss Doug Gilmour's parting shots as the rantings of a veteran humbled by an unproductive retirement season. But it became clear that the undercurrents of disillusion running through the playing ranks are steady and powerful when Dominik Hasek loaded up at the NHL awards ceremony and fired off a remark that pierced the franchise crest.

Do you consider the Sabres a Stanley Cup contender next season?

Said the Dominator, "No comment."

And with that subtle expression of dismay the formerly untouchable Hasek became a player subject to trade, so long as someone can meet the asking price of General Manager Darcy Regier, a blank check being his customary starting point.

Regier continued to wade in virtuosity at the NHL draft on Saturday, presuming that patience and not an errant sense of small-market guardianship is what keeps his finger off the trigger. If the Sabres weren't interested in fortifying last year's team by dealing Peca for experience, and if they weren't moved to enhance the future by dealing Peca for draft picks, then what is it they seek to acquire?

The argument that no suitable deal has arisen borders on dismissable. Peca has been away from the NHL for a year, was twice injured playing for the Canadian national team and has undergone shoulder surgery. As it was he was coming off the most unproductive season since his rookie year.

How can time be allied with Regier unless his true intent is to champion the cause for restructuring the collective bargaining agreement? Such a mission is commendable, especially to the overtaxed fans of Buffalo, although one's puzzled by the need to squeeze off the first shot years in advance of the war. Whatever Regier's motivations, the impact of his intransigence frustrated Hasek, the lone Buffalo player to publicly advocate moving Peca for reinforcements as the trade deadline approached.

Immediately after the playoffs, Hasek hinted he would return for another season if he and the Sabres could reach agreement on unspecified matters. Salary was certainly one of them. Organizational commitment to winning, it appears, was another. Why else would Hasek use the platform of his sixth Vezina Trophy to zing the franchise unless, while on his trip to the Rigas estate, he was once again fed the company lines: We're happy with being competitive. We'll move Peca only if we get equal value in return.

The possibilities of dealing Hasek may have increased Saturday afternoon when the St. Louis Blues sent goaltender Roman Turek to Calgary, receiving Fred Brathwaite, a netminder less capable than Turek, in return. It behooved the Blues to rid their roster of Turek before pursuing Hasek since Turek's marketability diminishes if a deal is consummated.

Trading Hasek would be best for Sabres' management at this time, now that Hasek's "no comment" has finally cracked John Rigas' heretofore unwavering loyalty. The front office can tease the fans with possibility just as easily without Hasek: make the playoffs, win a round or two, feel fulfilled, meet the budget. That is, they can achieve their meager goals so long as they have the allegiance of their remaining players, which no longer can be taken for granted. The comments that have poured out of the playing ranks during over the last 10 months tell a cumulative tale of disenchantment.

One of Peca's beefs was that, by delaying his contract negotiations until August, the Sabres were unfairly and undeservedly pressuring him to settle on unfavorable terms. He viewed the rush tactic as an insult and, in that regard, he had sympathizers in the dressing room. It's the manner in which the Sabres handled the negotiations, not the team's failure to cave to his demands, that rankled his teammates.

One of the reasons the Sabres didn't name a captain in Peca's absence is that Rhett Warrener, the likely choice, will be negotiating this summer. So the organization held the "C" at bay in order to avoid the possibility of having its captain a no-show to start consecutive seasons. The players were OK with that decision. Some felt that naming Warrener captain may have played with his head given his contract situation and the team's hard-line approach to negotiation.

Gilmour's farewell comments, particularly his criticism of the team-owned media, ring shallow on their own but are illuminating in the context of the last 10 months. His words are another indication that the front office, on many different levels, has the players mystified.

Trading Peca and Hasek won't eliminate all the wounds. Regier has to recapture the confidence of the dressing room. His new contract is a six-year deal. Here's hoping it doesn't expire before he gets the job done.

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