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Front-loaded deals burden small markets

It was mostly overlooked amid announcements that the Buffalo Sabres were losing co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, but General Manager Darcy Regier raised an interesting point in a recent news conference when he suggested big-market teams had an advantage over those in smaller markets.

How could that be in the new-and-improved NHL, where all 30 teams are operating under the same salary cap?

In fact, big-market teams do have a distinct edge. Teams from larger (see: wealthy) markets, such as Philadelphia and New York, can offer long-term deals loaded with more money up front because they can afford to buy out players toward the end of the contract. The structure of the deals helps them circumvent the salary cap while still drawing the better players.

Understand, the big-market advantage wasn't the reason the Sabres lost Drury and Briere. They could have kept both for less money over fewer years than the co-captains eventually received as unrestricted free agents. It wasn't until Drury and Briere hit the open market that New York and Philly could impose their leverage.

The top 10 revenue-producing teams must share a percentage of their money with the bottom 10. It helps the poorer teams, but it's still not enough to make up the difference. The gap between large and small markets, although nowhere near the $50 million-plus that separated the rich and poor before the NHL lockout, still exists.

Briere will make $40 million in the first five years of his contract with the Flyers, an average of $8 million per season, but he'll count only $6.5 million against the salary cap. Philly could buy out the remaining three years on Briere's contract for $8 million, a pittance for one of the NHL's richest teams.

If Briere plays well throughout the length of the contract, it's great for the Flyers. If his play tails off when he's in his mid-30s, they have the money to dump him.

It's the same way for the Rangers and Scott Gomez. He'll make $41.5 million over his first five years with the Blueshirts, which means he'll be averaging $8.3 million per season. He counts for $7.3 million against the cap and can be bought out for $6.66 million over the final two seasons. Drury is making $7.1 million his first two seasons, slightly above his cap number of $7.05 million.

There's a good chance neither Briere nor Gomez will see the end of their contracts. Buyouts count against the cap for one season, so there is a penalty for making poor decisions in free agency. Still, most big-market teams have the money to pay the actual dollars involved without thinking twice.

Most small-market teams, including the Sabres, aren't in position to offer huge money and seven- and eight-year contracts with the idea they can exercise a buyout. In the coming years, all teams will need to identify their core players sooner and, whether they like it or not, lock them into longer deals.

Edmonton recognized as much when it offered Thomas Vanek the seven-year deal worth $50 million. The winger actually was looking for a five-year contract because a shorter deal would have sent him back to the bargaining table sooner.

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Pay by the numbers

Sidney Crosby's five-year contract worth $43.5 million with the Penguins made for an interesting play on numbers, what with No. 87, who was born on Aug. 7, 1987, signing a deal that will pay him an average of $8.7 million per season.

Could it start a trend?

Star center Evgeni Malkin, who wears No. 71, was born July 31, 1986. He could wind up making a good argument for an extension next summer that pays him between $7.1 million and $7.31 million per season.

The Penguins are hoping they'll have enough left over for Jordan Staal, who last season proved his commitment to both ends of the ice. He doesn't have Crosby's and Malkin's speed or skill, but he's a darned good player. Don't be surprised if a team takes a run at him the way Edmonton did with Vanek.

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Free advice

Boston Bruins owner and Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos. Chairman Jeremy Jacobs has enough problems with his own team after previous management miscalculated life after the lockout, but he does have some advice for the Sabres: Raise your ticket prices.

Jacobs was recently elected as chairman of the board of governors. He said Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano is the right owner for the Sabres, but Jacobs believes higher ticket prices would ease the financial pressure on the organization.

"We're still driven very much by our ticket revenue," Jacobs said. "The attendance in Buffalo is strong. Buffalo has had a very low ticket price for a number of years. As long as the interest is strong as it is, it may be painful, but people may have to pay more for tickets. . . . On a comparative basis, when you're paying comparative salaries, you need comparative income."

The Sabres have the lowest ticket prices in the league. Their success and low prices last season were two major reasons tickets were in such high demand. Managing partner Larry Quinn said recently that most calls into Sabres' offices after Drury and Briere departed, were from fans asking to be moved higher on the season-ticket waiting list.

If that's the case, the Sabres should have no problem raising prices and increasing revenue. Quick math suggests a $2 increase per ticket would generate more than $1.5 million if Buffalo sold out all 41 games. Is that asking too much? The Bills raised prices by 12.5 percent, and they haven't made the playoffs in seven seasons.

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McKee deal reconsidered

Recent speculation around the league had the Blues trying to unload former Sabres defenseman Jay McKee, whose first year in St. Louis was an injury-riddled disaster that prompted second-guessing all the way back to Buffalo.

McKee played only 23 games for the Blues after suffering a sprained knee, a broken finger and a nagging pelvic injury after signing a four-year deal worth $16 million. It provided evidence for Sabres fans and front-office types to scoff at the contract.

Yes, the Blues overpaid for McKee. You know that, the Sabres know that and presumably McKee knows that. Again, he was looking for a four-year deal worth $9.5 million from the Sabres, which would have been fair for both sides.

McKee is considering junking his No. 74 sweater for something that brings him more luck, such as No. 77. Note to McKee: Don't change a thing.

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The end for Barnaby

Matthew Barnaby hasn't announced his retirement, but it appears his career has reached an end after 834 games over 14 seasons.

You might not have appreciated the former Sabres winger's style, but there's no getting around the fact that he was a survivor. Barnaby overcame long odds, found his niche as a pest and made more than $9 million in his career. Not bad for a guy many thought, at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, was too small to fight.

Barnaby suffered a serious concussion Jan. 9, ending his season with Dallas. He had 113 goals, 300 points and 2,562 penalty minutes in his career. The 34-year-old plans to remain in Western New York, where he has lived since playing his first full season in the NHL.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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