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Front office's blame game is played out

I'll say this much for the Buffalo Sabres. When it comes to entertaining news conferences, they're actually giving Ralph Wilson and the Bills a run for their money. On Friday, they announced the signing of Thomas Vanek to a long-term contract and made it sound as if they'd had their lunch money stolen by the schoolyard bully.

Darcy Regier and Larry Quinn put the best possible face on the situation. A couple of times, they mentioned that Vanek was a terrific hockey player. But they spent most of the time whining about the rising cost of salaries in the NHL and ripping the Edmonton Oilers for giving Vanek a seven-year, $50 million offer -- a deal they had no choice but to match.

Regier, the general manager, accused the Oilers of "preying" on the Sabres. Quinn, the managing partner, said the Sabres would welcome any opportunity to return the favor to the Oilers "as long as I'm alive." Or as long as the Bass Pro deal is alive, I'm not sure which.

Edmonton General Manager Kevin Lowe called the Sabres' reactions "rather juvenile," and he had a point. The Oilers wanted Vanek and made a strong bid, ignoring Regier's pleas for them to back off the free agent. They played within the rules. If the Sabres had a problem with it, well, it was easier than pointing the finger of blame where it belonged -- at themselves.

Once again, the Sabres miscalculated the soaring NHL market and got burned. It's hard to believe they couldn't have gone to Vanek last season and extended him at a lower cost -- as they tried with Chris Drury before fumbling the deal. Instead, they put their hope in a mythical "gentlemen's agreement" among NHL teams not to pursue each other's restricted players.

"People ask why we didn't negotiate with Thomas," Quinn said. "We didn't because we didn't have a party that wanted to, because this was the route they were following. You can tell when discussions get to a certain point that someone has a different option."

Quinn made it sound as if there had been a long history of talks with Vanek's agent, Steve Bartlett. That wasn't quite the case. Asked when he had begun talks with Bartlett, Regier said, "I've had a couple of conversations with him."

Pressed for more details, Regier said he didn't have an actual date. Finally, he said, "probably a general one a couple of weeks ago."

Oh, so the Sabres were so concerned about locking up Vanek, they waited until after the Stanley Cup finals to approach his agent? And Edmonton is the villain here? Who do these guys think they're kidding?

"We do a good job with our signings," Regier said. "We do. We choose to do it the way we do it. You can argue the timing of them or not. Things are always evolving and we're always trying to find a better way. To say it's as simple as going to a player early and he'll sign a contract, I've been doing contracts for 15 or 20 years. It doesn't happen."

This isn't 15 or 20 years ago. It's the new NHL, where Regier anticipated the changes in the game but failed to come to terms with the realities of the expanded free agency. The Sabres did have serious talks with Drury last fall about a four-year deal worth around $5.4 million a season. Surely, they could have done something with Vanek, a second-year player who had been benched in the playoffs a year earlier. Vanek's leverage increased when he got off to a good start. That might have been a perfect time to make a good-faith offer.

Instead, again, they waited . . . too . . . long, and Vanek hit the jackpot. Next year, Vanek will be the first Sabre to be paid $10 million in a season. He's the first $50 million player in Buffalo sports history. More to the point, he is now making more than twice as much as any other player on the Sabres.

That could be cause for concern in a changing and potentially fragile locker room. Drury was the unquestioned leader, one of the most accountable guys in sports. Daniel Briere was a forceful presence. One week ago, the team revolved around those two guys. Now it revolves around Vanek, a dynamic finesse player who hasn't always seen eye to eye with his coach, Lindy Ruff.

"My greatest concern is that it's not just about contracts," Regier said. "It's matching where guys are, in their games and their maturity and the value [of the contract]. We've got to do everything as an organization to make sure that Thomas can manage that contract. That's $50 million. There's expectations that come with that."

The expectations on Vanek will be enormous. He won't have the luxury of being on the third line. He'll be the main target of opposing defenses. Everyone -- fans, media, teammates, the front office -- will be watching closely to see if he justifies the money.

Vanek won't have Drury to lean on anymore. He won't be able to sit by while Briere handles the brunt of the interviews. People will expect a lot of him. Maybe he'll thrive with the added money and responsibility. Or maybe he'll become the modern version of Pierre Turgeon, a gifted athlete who never quite measures up to the fans' expectations.

Regier made it pretty clear that he doesn't think Vanek is ready, that he feels the Oilers and the system forced him to overpay. For better or worse, Vanek is now the face of the franchise. Maybe that's why it was so hard for management to put on a happy face.


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