The Buffalo Sabres took off Friday for their season opener in Dallas with some baggage they didn't mind carrying at all - the skates, stick and smarts of their top defenseman, Alexei Zhitnik.
Zhitnik, who once again missed all of training camp pending resolution of his contract, signed a two-year deal for $2.5 million per year plus bonuses that could add another six figures.
"I will definitely be in training camp next year," said Zhitnik, who is set to play against the Stars on Saturday night.
Zhitnik flew from his native Ukraine on Wednesday, and he and agent Serge Levin met with Sabres general manager Darcy Regier and team negotiator Kevin Billet on Thursday. Levin said that both sides agreed to terms Thursday night; the contract was signed just after noon Friday.
"Relieved is a great word for it," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Obviously you didn't want to start the season without him. It's unfortunate he hasn't been in practice at all, but he's a great skater ... and I think he'll be ready."
Aside from his defensive and playmaking skills, Zhitnik also gives the team an emotional boost.
"Going on the road without Alexei would have been disappointing," Ruff said. "I had it in the back of my mind that the deal would get done, and I think the players did. Everybody's happy now."
The team already had agreed to terms with forward Miroslav Satan, who signed a one-year deal at the airport just before the team plane departed Friday. The Sabres also signed defenseman James Patrick this week.
Wing Donald Audette, who had 44 points in the regular season last year, and defenseman Mike Wilson were still unsigned.
"We still have two players to sign, but this is important especially going into the opener," Regier said.
Billet was negotiating Friday with the agents for Audette and Wilson, according to Regier.
"I'm very happy that I didn't miss any games," said Zhitnik, who lives with his wife and year-old son in the Buffalo area during the season. "It's the right decision for everybody."
Zhitnik was second on the team in points last year with 45, including 15 goals.
"He's going to add a lot, certainly on both sides of special teams," center Michael Peca said.
"Now I have a chance to prove again that I can play at a high level," Zhitnik said. "I can relax and play better hockey."
Erik Rasmussen, a physical forward, was sent to the minors for the second straight season.
"There's a lot of things you like about the kid," Ruff said. "He played physical at times, he ran over people. He's definitely going to be a player, but I don't think the stats alone warranted him staying."
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