The eventual price may rise a bit, but Ray Sheppard is the new leader in the NHL's contest for bargain of the year.

Pittsburgh's acquisition of Joe Mullen (38 points) from Calgary for a second-round draft choice was the early leader in this category, but Sheppard's play has helped the New York Rangers push Chicago for first place overall, and his price makes General Manager Neil Smith look very smart.

Sheppard languished in the Buffalo Sabres' doghouse (lack of scoring his offense) last season. The 24-year-old right wing played just 18 games for the Sabres and five games in the AHL. So on July 9 Buffalo sold Sheppard to the Rangers for $1, with a small rider attached.

"They gave up on me. That's the bottom line," Sheppard said. "People asked what Ray Sheppard is made of. Well, Ray Sheppard is obviously not a quitter."

Sheppard has 18 goals and 19 assists this season after last night's game against the St. Louis Blues. The rider on the deal concerned Sheppard's performance. Depending on how many games and goals he totals, the Sabres will get a draft pick. But even then it will be no higher than a sixth-rounder. Still a great deal.

"We were taking a chance," said Smith, who, as a scout for Detroit, remembered seeing Sheppard as a junior player. "We thought he could play, but how much and how well, we didn't know."

Sheppard is a good friend of center John Tucker, who spent the last half of last season with Washington before going back to the Sabres. Initially, Tucker was happy to be returning to Buffalo. He met his wife, Lynn, there and they had kept their home.

But as this season has worn on, Tucker has played less and less. He sat out seven games before playing Tuesday night in Vancouver, giving him just 17 games for the season, with one goal and three assists. He has asked to be traded.

The Sabres are deep at center and some of that talent finally is playing well. If Philadelphia was the biggest overachiever of the first half, Buffalo was the team that fell furthest short of expectations. With a 3-3 tie in Vancouver, the Sabres now are unbeaten in their last eight games, but are still in just third place in the Adams Division. Heroes of Hockey

Former Capitals defenseman Bryan Watson, who lives and runs a restaurant in Virginia, is helping to organize the Heroes of Hockey old-timers game that will be played in Chicago Jan. 18, one night before the All-Star Game.

"We didn't realize how popular the event would be," Watson said of the game, which has sold out Chicago Stadium. "The ex-players are very recognizable. One problem with current players is that when you take the helmets and jerseys off, people don't recognize who they are." . . .

There are several ideas about how to realign the league when Tampa Bay and Ottawa begin play in 1992-93. San Jose will enter next season. An all-Canadian division (with two others going elsewhere) is among the proposals.

The trouble with that one is that several Canadian teams don't like it. Toronto doesn't want to be in a division with Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary because it would mean so many 10:30 and 9:30 p.m. starting times, which translates to fewer TV/radio dollars.

Chicago General Manager Bob Pulford -- looking out for his team's interests, of course -- proposed having a Norris Division consisting of Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Minnesota, Los Angeles and San Jose; a Patrick Division of the three New York area teams, plus Hartford, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, and a Smythe Division with all of the Canadian teams except Winnipeg and Toronto, which would go to the Adams Division with Pittsburgh, Boston, Buffalo and Washington.

The Capitals would be expected to fight such an arrangement because it would increase their travel costs while losing several established rivalries.

The Rangers' Smith thinks each division should have an expansion team, with Minnesota -- which will lose much of its personnel to San Jose -- counting as a fourth new team. Ottawa Rumor Discounted

Reports that Ottawa might come into the league early because the Senators have sold their tickets for 1992-93 while the San Jose Sharks aren't there yet for next season, were discounted by a league official. "I have heard nothing about that internally," the official said. . . .

The biggest crowd of the season in Minnesota has been 12,015 for the Dec. 31 game against Los Angeles.

The Edmonton Oilers had a losing record from Oct. 21 through Dec. 28, when they beat Vancouver to improve to 18-17-2. They are 19-20-2 after last night's loss in Detroit.

"This is a wounded animal lurking in the undergrowth," Vancouver's director of player personnel, Brian Burke, said back when the Oilers were in last place. "You can bet your last dollar that everyone in the division is looking over their shoulder. Edmonton has been winning for too long."