Zhitnik won't rule out staying with Sabres

Updated: April 6, 2004, 6:17 PM ET
Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik intends to test the free agent market this summer but isn't ruling out re-signing with Buffalo.

"My agent will keep talking to the Sabres, but I think I'm going to test (free agency) and see what's going on," Zhitnik said on Tuesday as Sabres players cleaned out their lockers after the team failed to qualify for the playoffs. "I don't want to say I've played my last game here. I'm just taking it one day at a time right now."

Zhitnik is a 12-year NHL veteran and spent nine-plus seasons in Buffalo as one of the team's most dependable defensemen. Despite missing the last 14 games with a broken bone in his shoulder, Zhitnik finished the season with four goals and 28 assists -- the ninth season he's recorded 30 or more points -- in 68 games.

He led the team and finished 10th in the league in averaging 25:01 of ice time a game. Zhitnik is now Buffalo's longest serving player, following the trade of Curtis Brown to San Jose last month.

Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said he will make every attempt to re-sign Zhitnik.

"He'll check out the market, but he is well aware that we have a high level of interest and would love to have him back here, and hopefully he'll agree," Regier said. "I think it's something where he's played all these years for an opportunity to check the market out and we respect that."

Sabres defenseman Jay McKee hoped Zhitnik will return.

"Z's been the cornerstone of our team since I've been here," McKee said. "He's a guy that whatever team he plays for is going to be a better team. And he's a guy that we could definitely use back."

Sabres defenseman James Patrick, who completed his 21st NHL season, is the only other Sabres player eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Patrick finished with four goals and seven assists in 58 games this season, his sixth in Buffalo, and plans to continue playing.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press