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Lay blame at the feet of Quinn

Say they commissioned a poll of Sabres fans to determine the least popular figure in management today. Who would come out on top? It's a tough call -- like trying to pick the biggest stooge among Moe, Larry and Curly.

Tom Golisano would surely get a lot of support. The franchise has doubled in value since Golisano bought it four years ago. The community has supported the team in record numbers. Blame goes to the top, so you have to hold the owner responsible for losing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in free agency.

Darcy Regier would do well in the vote. As general manager, it's his job to anticipate the market and lock up players to long-term deals. But he blew it on Drury and Briere. Then, in a stunning lapse of judgment, Regier said the Sabres won't be as good next year.

Still, my pick would be managing partner Larry Quinn. It was Quinn who convinced Golisano to buy the Sabres and rode his coattails back to the NHL. Quinn is a deal-maker, though you'd never know it from the ongoing Bass Pro debacle.

It was also Quinn who pushed to get Drury to Buffalo. He knew Drury was a special talent whose value couldn't be measured in stats. Drury changed the hockey culture in this town.

Golisano didn't know hockey when he bought the team. He leaned on Quinn for insight. It was Quinn's job to make the owner fully aware of Drury's worth to the franchise. The NHL was working under a new economic model. In an era of expanded free agency, the marketplace was exploding. Someone had to make Golisano understand the need to keep Drury off the market.

The opportunity was there, but they blew it. Last fall, the Sabres and Drury tentatively agreed on a four-year, $21.5 million extension. The Sabres say there was no formal agreement, but this much is clear: They waited two weeks to think it over, and Drury changed his mind.

The Sabres have tried to lay the blame on Drury for being impatient. But two weeks is an eternity in contract negotiations, especially when the regular season has begun and the player is looking at unrestricted free agency.

They should have jumped all over the deal. Locking up Drury for four years at $5.4 million a year would have been a steal, Golisano's best move since scraping together $3,000 to found Paychex.

Once Quinn realized that Drury was offering a "hometown discount," he should have called Golisano and told him to get on the next plane, with a pen and contract in hand.

Instead, they froze. Quinn allowed management indecisiveness to rule the day. Granted, Golisano didn't become a billionaire by backing down in a negotiation. But this wasn't some Paychex flunkie asking for an extra $25 in his check. This is pro sports in the new millennium, where an unrestricted free agent has the power to decide his own destiny.

You don't make your star player wait. You swallow hard and do the deal. They knew the market was taking off. When Briere got $5 million for one year from the arbitrator, you figured Drury would command well over $6 million a year on the open market. Drury got a shade over $7 million a year from the Rangers, and he didn't test the market. If he'd opened it up to the entire NHL, he probably could have gotten $8 million.

But the Sabres left Drury hanging for two weeks, and it cost them. They choked. They let the Sabres' competitive soul get away. There's plenty of blame to go around, but it will go down as Quinn's failure. Anyone who has done business with Quinn knows he can be a bully. This was one time where the Sabres needed a bully to get the deal done.

Now, they look the way they did when Golisano first set his eyes on the franchise: Like rank amateurs.


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