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FINANCES MAY PUSH HASEK OUT THE DOOR

The Buffalo Sabres raised ticket prices again Tuesday, up a few percent from last year or slightly more than the cost of living. Relatively speaking, the Sabres are asking that you dig a little deeper to watch them fall short again. Just be happy the Sabres' ticket prices aren't escalating at the same rate as Dominik Hasek's contract, set for $9 million if his option year is exercised before Sunday.

Hasek is the best goalie in hockey. At least that's what general managers around the National Hockey League claimed when they voted him the Vezina Trophy winner after checking his stats and ignoring everything else. The only thing the Sabres gained from the voting is trade leverage, so now it appears they have some.

Nobody's criticizing Hasek, mind you. The Dominator is quirky to say the least, but he's become more engaging with age and experience and hasn't ripped a button-down in, what, nearly five years now? This has nothing to do with Dominik Hasek the man and everything to do with Dominik Hasek the player.

And the direction the NHL is headed.

We aren't sure exactly when it will happen, but the NHL is power skating toward financial saturation in which teams can no longer hang onto their stars. Hasek, in a sense, is a poster boy and the Sabres a symbolic sponge for today's NHL. He's the best goalie in hockey for a defensive-minded team that wants him but can't justify paying him without alienating its fan base and imploding its hermetic budget.

Now, the Sabres are stuck going upstream without a paddle, susceptible to trading a red Corvette for an orange Chevette. They have plenty of company.

Consider the list of players set to become unrestricted free agents Sunday, starting one whopper of a game of musical chairs: Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Brett Hull, Rob Blake, Alexander Mogilny, Pierre Turgeon, Jeremy Roenick and Luc Robitaille are among the elite. Most every team wants them but so few can pay them. A lower tier includes Donald Audette, Martin Lapointe, Rob Zamuner, Eric Weinrich and Steve Heinze.

Teams simply aren't willing to gamble millions for mediocrity. Instead, they would rather pay for mediocrity and pray for greatness. It doesn't bode well for the NHL.

But it's inevitable.

Sakic is the hottest free agent after winning the Hart Trophy and the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche last season. The Avs could have locked him into a long-term deal but instead agreed to give him a one-year contract worth $7.9 million in hopes he could lead them to the Cup. It worked for both sides. Sakic is now looking for $10 million or more next season and the Avs, among the few teams who made money last season, might not be in the running.

Blake was acquired to join Sakic for the Cup run after turning down a five-year, $40 million offer from the Los Angeles Kings. The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL's richest franchises and thought to be very interested in Blake, are backing away from the Blake sweepstakes.

Hull led the Stars with 39 goals and was second with 79 points last season, but they elected not to pick up his option for next season. He didn't blame them. Halfway through the season, he admitted it was ludicrous that he was being paid $7 million. He might return to Dallas for less money next season.

Others are trade bait. The Penguins are shopping Jaromir Jagr because he's due to make $21 million over the next two years. The Eric Lindros saga has reached its second offseason with no end in sight. We know what happened with Michael Peca. Top players all over the league are available either through free agency or trade because clubs either can't afford them or are tired of overpaying them.

And that includes Hasek, who made $7.5 million last season and is still due a 20 percent raise.

St. Louis apparently wants The Dominator and has the money, but why would the Blues trade for him now with the Sabres more vulnerable than Mike Milbury? The Blues might be able to land him for a song knowing the Sabres, staring down a $9 million option, need to unload him. They once thought the five-time Vezina Trophy winner would retire. Now they have a six-time Vezina Trophy winner that they can't set free into an open market.

Can they?

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