Oilers’ bid for Vanek matched by Sabres

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BUFFALO, N.Y. – Losing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency was bad enough. The Buffalo Sabres weren’t going to let high-scoring youngster Thomas Vanek get away at any price.

Without hesitation, the Sabres signed Vanek to a seven-year, $50 million contract Friday, matching the offer the player received from the Edmonton Oilers.

“We matched it for a lot of different reasons,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. “One, was to say to everyone in the National Hockey League, ‘If you want to shop this way, don’t come here.”‘

The Oilers move also enraged Buffalo, with Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn warning his team will consider making offers to Edmonton players in the future.

“I’m happy we have Thomas for seven years. I think that’s really important to state here,” Quinn said. “But it’s not doing the Edmonton Oilers any good what they did today.”

Nothing personal, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe said.

“I think it’s rather juvenile on their part,” Lowe said. “Fellas, it’s a business. Take the personal out of it. It was right for the Oilers and obviously, it appears, it’s right for the Sabres.”

Vanek becomes one of the NHL’s top-paid players entering only his third year, and after he led Buffalo with 43 goals and finished 20th in the league with 84 points last season. Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2003 draft, Vanek’s 68 goals and 132 points rank third among second-year NHL players – trailing only Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.

The Oilers move was not unprecedented, but still considered a bold one in how much the team was willing to spend knowing the Sabres had the right to match.

The Sabres retained Vanek’s rights by issuing him a qualifying offer last month, but the player – as a Group 2 free agent – was open to negotiating other deals. Had the Sabres not matched Edmonton’s offer, the Oilers would have had to give up four first-round draft picks to Buffalo as compensation.

Vanek, who made $942,400 last season in the final year of his rookie contract, will make $10 million next season, including a $5 million signing bonus. He’ll make $8 million in 2008-09, including a $3 million bonus, and then $6.4 million in each of the final five years of the deal.

Bruins reach contracts with Allen, Bitz

BOSTON – Defenseman Bobby Allen and forward Byron Bitz have agreed to contract terms with the Boston Bruins, the team said Friday.

The Bruins did not disclose terms of the contracts with Allen, who appeared in 31 games for Boston last season, and Bitz, who comes to the Bruins after completing his senior year of college hockey for Cornell University.

Allen split time last season between the Providence and Boston Bruins. With Boston, Allen recorded three assists and 10 penalty minutes. The 29-year-old Hull, Mass. native played hockey at Boston College, and was originally drafted by the Bruins in the 1998 NHL entry draft.

Bitz was the Bruins’ fourth pick in the 2003 draft. The native of Corman Park, Saskatchewan finished his four-year collegiate career with 28 goals and 60 assists.

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Wild sign D Hill despite steroid penalty

MINNEAPOLIS – Just when Sean Hill thought a steroid scandal might mark the end of his NHL career, the Minnesota Wild called to tell him to come on home.

“For the Wild to come out and tell me they wanted me, I can’t tell you the feelings I had,” Hill said in a telephone interview Friday, hours after finalizing a one-year deal with the Wild. “I’ve played a lot of years in this league, and that wasn’t the way I wanted to go out.”

The 37-year-old defenseman played for the New York Islanders last season and was suspended hours before their playoff loss to Buffalo on April 20, becoming the first NHL player to be suspended for violating the league’s drug policy. He received a 20-game suspension and will miss the first 19 games of this season.

The Wild said Hill acknowledged using a doctor-prescribed testosterone booster approved by the NHL, but tested positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone, which is banned.

“We have talked to Sean at length, and he denies knowingly taking any banned performance-enhancing substance,” the Wild said in a statement. “We also researched the situation and the substance Sean tested positive for and found that boldenone can be ingested inadvertently through health supplements and foods. We cannot determine the source of Sean’s test failure. However, we believe Sean did not knowingly take any banned performance-enhancing substance.”

Hill told the team he did not knowingly take boldenone and is unsure how it got in his system. He maintained that stance on Friday.

“I don’t have an explanation for it,” Hill said. “I wish I did. It would make my life a lot easier if I could put my finger on it.”

At the time of Hill’s suspension, Islanders GM Garth Snow said the team supported the league’s decision, saying the “New York Islanders do not support the use of performance-enhancing agents in any form.”

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, a player receives a 20-game suspension for a first positive test and is subject to a mandatory referral to the league’s substance abuse-behavioral health program for evaluation, education and possible treatment.

Every NHL player can be given up to two tests without notice every year, at any time.

Hill had one goal and 24 assists in 81 games for the Islanders last season. The hard-nosed native of Duluth ranked third in the NHL in hits and sixth in blocked shots.

Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro called Hill “one of our most consistent defensemen all season, and an unbelievable character guy.”

Hill said he expected the Islanders to re-sign him when the season concluded. But they never made an offer, and he was starting to get nervous that the steroid stigma would scare other teams away.

Looking for a big, physical presence on the blue line after getting pushed around by Anaheim in their first-round playoff loss, the Wild immediately began courting Hill when free agency began.

“I can’t think of any better timing for it,” Hill said. “To be able to come home and play in front of family and friends, it’s exciting.”

An eighth-round pick of Montreal in the 1988 draft, Hill has also played for Anaheim, Ottawa, Carolina, St. Louis and Florida.

AP-ES-07-06-07 1646EDT

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