Gerry Meehan is the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, but he is also a lawyer by training, so he understands precedents. The one set Thursday did not make him happy.

Washington Capitals defenseman Scott Stevens and the St. Louis Blues appeared to rewrite some of the unwritten rules by which many NHL player contracts will be negotiated. Stevens, who played out his option, signed an offer sheet that will pay him, according to a source, an average of $1.3 million a year over the four-year contract. The Capitals have until Thursday to match the offer, but whatever colors Stevens wears next season he'll still draw that salary.

He is one of the league's best defensemen, but not everyone would put him in the same category with the other million-per-year players -- Los Angeles' Wayne Gretzky, Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, Edmonton's Mark Messier and St. Louis's Brett Hull.

"St. Louis thought he was," Meehan said. "But I don't know. I'm frustrated. I'm puzzled by it."

He and other general managers aren't thrilled about the deal because it eventually will mean more money for more players. The deals signed by Gretzky and Lemieux were grudgingly accepted by management because of their immense talents, ability to pack arenas and, in the case of Gretzky, win Stanley Cups. Still, it pushed open the pay envelope. The Stevens deal -- and the $7 million contract Hull signed less than a month earlier -- will help other players fill it. The upper echelon of players -- the all-stars and not just the superstars -- will be demanding salaries in the $1 million range.

"It's not a floodgate yet, but good hockey players will be paid better than they have," said Sam Simpson, director of operations for the NHL Players Association.

"Two years ago, we had two guys making that kind of money, but everybody realized they were different," Meehan said of Lemieux and Gretzky. "Now, it doesn't look that different."

Other than generally helping players, exactly how the marketplace will be reshaped by this deal is difficult to judge. The free-agency system in the NHL is quite restrictive -- if the Capitals don't match the Blues' offer by Thursday, St. Louis will owe Washington $100,000 and two first-round draft picks within the top seven overall within three years. If the Blues don't have those picks, they will owe the Capitals a total of five first-round choices. Stevens is the first player from the most sought-after category to sign an offer sheet since the current compensation rules were put in place in 1982. Some think more players will test the market by playing out their options. Others say general managers will be forced to come up with more money before a player's contract expires to avoid the risk of losing him. This may also have an effect on the soon-to-begin negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners, with the players' appetites whetted for freer free agency. The current agreement will expire Sept. 15, 1991.

"I think it's too early to tell, but what we can't do is overreact," Meehan said. "But a few weeks ago, a well-paid player was making over $400,000. Now that seems to have changed."

Chris Chelios, who was just traded from Montreal to Chicago for Denis Savard, had been the highest-paid defenseman at about $800,000 a year. Chelios, 28, helped the Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup finals twice (winning once) and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman in 1989. Stevens has done neither. Boston's Ray Bourque -- who won the Norris for the third time this season and helped eliminate Stevens and the Capitals from the playoffs -- is going into his option year after making $500,000 last season, according to NHLPA figures. Meehan said he has four or five players who would be in the top five or six at their positions.

"Their agents will be fools not to draw comparisons," Meehan said.

Stevens's agent, Rick Bennett, said that within a year the number of million-dollar-per-year players could reach 10 or 12.

"Teams with guys playing out their option will have a materially greater interest in signing them before they play out their option than they had a week ago," Bennett said. "They will have seen what happened. Scott is one of the best players in the league. He doesn't stand head and shoulders above every player in the league, though he does with most. But there are a number who are equally as valuable."

Opinions are mixed, even among those on the side of players, whether more players will pass up a good offer to wait for a better one as free agent. Bennett said it was a nerve-wracking season for Stevens, especially when he broke a foot. The union's Simpson thinks more players will try free agency. Some players and agents hope Simpson is right but they also see the Stevens deal as an aberration.

"I think it says more for Scott than it does for the free agency that exists," said the Capitals' Mike Ridley. "I don't see many other guys for whom teams would be willing to give that up. In my mind, free agency in the NHL doesn't exist because of compensation."

There are essentially three types of free agents, based on age and experience. The first group involves players 24 or younger, and compensation is decided by an arbitrator if the clubs can't agree. In the second, which includes Stevens and many top players, the compensation scale (with draft picks being the currency) is based on what the new team is going to pay the player. Other players can become free agents without compensation if they are 31 or older when their contracts expire. This year, 57 players were free agents subject to compensation. Edmonton's Jari Kurri was one but signed with an Italian team. Another 40 players were free agents uninhibited by compensation.

"Not too many people in the game have accepted the risk of mortgaging the future," St. Louis General Manager Ron Caron was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

Still, Capitals General Manager David Poile insisted that the Stevens deal "shows that the free agency system does work and somebody did get signed."