Buffalo in 'preliminary' talks with its top pick

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Sabres have had initial talks with Thomas Vanek in an attempt to sign the college forward who just completed his sophomore season at Minnesota.

Sabres general manager Darcy Regier told The Associated Press that he has contacted Vanek's advisers, opening negotiations on what he termed, "a preliminary basis." Regier added that he believes Vanek, whom the Sabres selected fifth overall in the 2003 draft, is ready to take the next step and forgo his final two years of college eligibility.

"I think you can always accomplish more no matter where you are. But I think there's another question and that's: 'Is there another step he's ready to make?'" Regier said. "And certainly I think he's ready to play at the American Hockey League level and maybe even at the National Hockey League level."

Regier said a potential roadblock in talks could involve the terms of the contract and how it might fit under a new NHL collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires Sept. 15.

Vanek, who represented his native Austria at the World Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic earlier this month, was not immediately available for comment.

Vanek is coming off a somewhat disappointing second season at Minnesota, even though he led the team with 26 goals and 25 assists in 38 games. That's still a drop-off from a strong freshman season when Vanek scored 31 goals and 31 assists in 45 games and led the Golden Gophers to the NCAA title.

Minnesota coach Don Lucia said he was unaware of any talks between Vanek and the Sabres. Lucia said he preferred to have the player back for his junior season, particularly considering fears that a labor dispute will disrupt the start of the next NHL season.

As for whether Vanek's ready to turn pro, Lucia said that's up to the Sabres to decide.

"I think there's areas of his game that he could certainly work on, probably the biggest is becoming a dominant player night in and night out," Lucia said. "I think it all boils down to is if Buffalo wants to sign him. And if they do in fact want to sign him, what kind of contract are they willing to give him to have him leave school."