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Enjoy this year, Drury and Briere may be gone

You wish the whole thing could be pushed aside until June, swept away until the Buffalo Sabres are paraded downtown with the Stanley Cup. Nobody likes to talk about money issues with the season going so well and so much promise in the months ahead.

Chris Drury and Daniel Briere certainly aren't comfortable discussing business and impending unrestricted free agency. Drury is one of the all-time gamers, a guy who seldom loses focus when it comes to winning. He's not thinking about money. He's thinking about his next shift.

No matter what you might have heard, Drury enjoys Western New York. It holds a special place in his heart. His first child was born here. He appreciates how the people have treated him, how fans have struck the proper balance between admiration and space. What's not to like? He's winning and making a good buck.

The same goes for Briere. His family is reaching a stage where they're starting to build a life here. His career turned around the minute he arrived. Look at him now, an all-star center having a career year for the best team in the conference.

Like it or not, Darcy Regier and his cohorts will eventually need to make a decision about these two. The math suggests the Sabres can keep one or the other, probably not both, perhaps not even either. Even if the salary cap doesn't become an obstruction, their value could exceed the Sabres' budget. They're already spending about $7 million more than they had planned.

It's an issue today only because reality visited HSBC Arena on Saturday night. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04. They should have thrived under the new collective bargaining agreement and the rulebook that followed. Instead, they've been mostly on the playoff fringes.

Tampa was a victim of its success. It had three superstars in former first overall pick Vincent Lecavalier, former Hart Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards. Lightning GM Jay Feaster checked the roster, looked into the future and kept all three.

How couldn't he? Wait, how could he?

Despite their greatness, Tampa Bay can't win it all again with them. Lecavalier, St. Louis and Richards are making a combined $21 million this season. But because they account for nearly half of the payroll, it's practically impossible to build a supporting cast. Tampa Bay has great players, but not a great team. It lacks depth and sorely misses underappreciated players such as Fredrik Modin, a forgotten man in Columbus.

The same thing could happen to the Sabres, so here's what you do: Enjoy every minute of this season. Soak up the remaining 37 games, knowing they can win the Cup. Pray to the hockey gods during the playoffs. Treasure the experience, and keep in mind it could be years before the Sabres get this crack again.

The NHL is a cyclical league, one bent on building competitive balance. Dynasties are in the past. The CBA was designed to help small-market teams such as Buffalo, but it can also nibble at the roster.

Frankly, fans have no right to complain about the system. It works at the gate. It works on the ice. It works in the accounting office. They can't whine about losing players, not anymore.

If Buffalo can keep Drury or Briere, it would be a major victory. For how much and how long? By the looks of things, it could be too much.

Regier had preliminary talks with Drury last summer and suggested Saturday he could get on the horn again. He was forced to wait until Jan. 1 to get things rolling with Briere because of a stipulation in the CBA that makes teams delay negotiations for players on one-year deals before they enter unrestricted free agency.

Drury looks for the best opportunity to win while making sure his contract is commensurate with his ability. He'll accept what he thinks is fair, perhaps less, if it means keeping him on a Cup contender. He's not the type of person who shops for the best offer and hits the road. But the Sabres can't lowball him, either, because other contenders will meet his definition of fair.

We're talking $5 million to $7 million.

Briere wants to win, too, but he also wants stability. He knows there's value in playing for a winner. He'd be willing to take less money per season from the Sabres than from other teams, but the hometown discount better come with an extra year or two on the deal. Does that mean three years at $18 million or five years at, say, $27 million?

They could play out their contracts and receive offers from other teams they can't refuse. It's what happened to Jay McKee when the Blues offered him a mind-blowing four-year deal worth $16 million. The Sabres could have had him for much less had they negotiated an extension during the season.

The Sabres haven't had serious talks with their co-captains, and it doesn't look like they're in a hurry to start. Every day that passes as they inch toward the playoffs, it becomes less likely they'll keep both.

So sit back, appreciate the months ahead and brace for the summer. No matter what happens in June, it's bound to hurt in July.


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