Bucky Gleason: Ten years later, Sabres still feeling cause and effect of Drury, Briere - The Buffalo News
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Bucky Gleason: Ten years later, Sabres still feeling cause and effect of Drury, Briere

Last Thursday, I was watching a television segment about the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone. The "Today" show aired old clips showing Meredith Vieira fumbling the device, which happened to be rolled out one day after my 40th birthday. Matt Lauer's short, salt-and-pepper hair then resembles mine now.

On Friday, the Sabres reacquired Jason Pominville from the Wild. His return took me back to some of the best days in franchise history. Saved to eternal memory was his shorthanded goal to beat the Senators in overtime, lifting the Sabres into the 2006 Eastern Conference finals.

Pominville had me thinking: He was a fresh-faced, naïve 23-year-old who was starting his NHL career when he scored that famous goal. He's 34-years-old now, married with children, with more than 900 games and some $36 million in career earnings behind him. He's considerably closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

And that's when it dawned on me: Saturday marked the 10-year anniversary of the darkest day in franchise history, when the Sabres lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere on the same afternoon, knocking the franchise from its moorings and causing enough damage to ultimately lead to their collapse.

You would think bewilderment over the Sabres losing their co-captains a few hours apart would dissipate over time, experience and perspective. Actually, it's the opposite. It's more troubling now than it was July 1, 2007, when a terrific team lost its heart, soul and credibility through sheer stupidity.

Let me say this about the Drury-Briere debacle all these years later: I was wrong about the impact they had on the organization. At the time, I suggested it would take the Sabres five years to fully recover. Ten years later, and at no time in between, has Buffalo been remotely close to restoring greatness.

Sure, they made the playoffs a couple of times after the two co-captains essentially were forced into free agency. The Sabres won a division title in 2009-10. But they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs both times and nowhere near good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup.

10 years ago: Sabres lose Briere and Drury

To review, for Sabres fans who were either too young to comprehend what happened or forgot the details: Drury and Briere led the Sabres into the conference finals in 2005-06. The following season, both were in the final year of their contracts and on their way to leading the Sabres to the best record in the NHL and a return to the conference finals.

At the time, the Sabres had an asinine policy in which they didn't negotiate contract extensions during the season. Well, that's what they claimed, anyway. Both were expected to receive considerable pay raises. Neither was asking for an exorbitant amount of money, largely because they wanted to stay together.

The top priority for both players was winning the Stanley Cup. They were perfectly happy living in Buffalo. They believed the Sabres would remain in contention if they stayed together and made a few tweaks to the roster. Many believed the Sabres needed to decide whether they wanted to keep one or the other.

Later, it became clear, that wasn't true. They could have kept both. If they did, they may have avoided years of misery.

Briere was a terrific offensive player and creative playmaker who led the Sabres with 95 points, including 63 assists, in 2006-07. Drury was a better two-way player who had a career year with 69 points, scoring 32 goals and surpassing his previous career high set the previous season.

The high-flying Sabres netted a league-leading 308 goals. Thomas Vanek scored 43 times while playing mostly on the third line with center Derek Roy, who had 21 goals and 63 points. Pominville had 34 points and 68 points in his first full NHL season. Buffalo had the most exciting team in the league.

Drury was a consummate professional, ultimate team player, natural leader and winner since his youth. Most people knew he had led his Trumbull, Conn., baseball team to the Little League World Series in 1989. Most didn't know he also led his pee wee hockey team to a national title the following year.

He won an NCAA title as a freshman at Boston University. He won the Hobey Baker as the top U.S. college player. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1999 and the Cup with Colorado two years later. Monday marked the 14th anniversary of his trade to Buffalo.

I've been accused many times of being a Drury apologist. I would plead guilty, but he never gave me a reason to apologize for him. As his college coach, the great Jack Parker, once told me, "If you're not in Chris Drury's line, you're in the wrong line." If you spent any time around Drury, you understood.

It also explains why Drury never mentioned a verbal contract agreement he reached with the Sabres early in the 2006-07 season. He had asked for a four-year deal worth $23 million, which was well within reason. Darcy Regier offered him four years at $20 million. The two sides agreed to split the difference: four years, $21.5 million.

Drury never told anybody, not even his own teammates, about the deal. He waited for months for the contract to be sent to his agent to be signed. Someone higher than Regier, most likely owner Tom Golisano and not managing partner Larry Quinn, balked at the deal. The contract sat in the Sabres' front office.

All three deserved a share of the blame – Regier and Quinn for not standing up to Golisano and convincing him he was making a mistake, Golisano for meddling in negotiations when he knew absolutely nothing about hockey. The whole thing was ludicrous and entirely their fault.

Never one to publicly complain, Drury continued playing out the final year of his contract. After the Sabres lost to Ottawa in the conference finals, when asked about his contract status, he made it clear he would be back IF the Sabres wanted him. The uncertainty in his voice was a sign that something was amiss.

Of course they wanted him, right?

Quinn, in response weeks later to rumors about Drury's imminent departure, assured me his star player would be back. Shame on me, but I believed him. Quinn was banking on the verbal agreement, not realizing that the Sabres' refusal to send him the contract months earlier had encouraged Drury to consider other options.

With every week the Sabres dragged their feet, they pushed Drury one step closer to the door. He had treated the organization with professionalism and respect. When the Sabres didn't grant him the same in return, he quietly went about his business before reaching a point of no return. For Drury, it came down to principle.

Briere was a different case. Many assumed he was looking for more money than the one-year deal for $5 million he received in arbitration, a ruling that left the Sabres angry. He wasn't even looking for a pay hike. He wanted a long-term deal: five years for $25 million, a bargain for a Cup contender.

The Sabres didn't offer Briere any contract until two days before the start of unrestricted free agency, when it was evident the verbal agreement they reached with Drury was worthless. It was way too late. By then, the situation had changed for both players, and they turned their attention toward the open market.

Who could blame them?

Poor management, not their desire to leave Buffalo or a lack of money, forced both players to the exit.

Drury signed a five-year deal worth $35.25 million with the Rangers. Briere signed an eight-year deal worth $52 million with the Flyers. The Sabres could have had both for $10.375 million per season. Instead, their top two centers combined to make $13.55 million per season elsewhere.

Making matters worse, their departures forced the Sabres into a seven-year, $50 million deal with Vanek, matching an offer from Edmonton to the restricted free agent. According to several GMs and agents, Vanek was pegged for about $4 million per year if the Sabres kept Drury and Briere.

Edmonton could have offered Vanek the monster deal if the Sabres kept their two stars, but Buffalo would have had the option of matching the offer or taking five first-round picks from the Oilers as compensation. Once the two co-captains were gone, the Sabres agreed to pay Vanek more than $7.1 million per season.

By now, you must be shaking your head.

The irony was that the Sabres, in their effort to keep payroll under control, contributed more to skyrocketing NHL salaries that summer than any team in the league. Already known for being stingy, the Sabres' reputation took a massive hit from players and agents who didn't think they were serious about winning.

Drury and Briere's departures created a vacuum down the middle. Roy and Vanek, who made major impacts while playing on the third line, instantly became first-line players – Roy based on the depth chart and Vanek based on money. It trickled down and weakened the roster.

The Sabres had emerged as contenders because they were loaded with talent, but their depth was a major reason for their success. Lindy Ruff had the ability to create mismatches along his bottom three lines. Suddenly, it was gone. Players who previously couldn't crack their lineup were pushed into the NHL.

Everything changed in one day.

The Sabres, once scary good, became just another hockey team. It contributed to existing recruiting problems in free agency, led to them overpaying players who signed for the wrong reasons, further threw off payroll, turned a snowball into an avalanche and eventually six straight years of missing the playoffs.

For years, Sabres apologists took pleasure in seeing Drury and Briere fail to produce commensurate with their new contracts. Fans pleaded with me to stop writing about the past, to get over Drury and Briere, and move forward. But it never mattered to me what happened with Drury in New York and Briere in Philly.

They were great here, and their departures continued to have an impact long after they were gone. If you stretch out the chain long enough, you can link the Sabres' demise and subsequently the ridiculous "tank" approach to rebuilding to mismanagement during the Drury-Briere saga.

I've said many times that one player alone cannot lift a team to new heights in hockey, and it's true. There's a fine line between success and failure in professional sports. Teams need to do almost everything right to win a championship. But it takes almost nothing for great teams to fall apart and years to recover.

Drury has since become assistant general manager of the Rangers. Briere is running daily operations for the Flyers' affiliate in Portland, Maine, in the East Coast Hockey League. I'm guessing both will avoid making similar mistakes as rising executives that the Sabres made with them 10 years ago.

It's hard to believe 10 years have passed.

Suddenly, I'm 50.

In some ways, the summer of 2007 feels like yesterday. In other ways, it feels like an eternity. We can all agree that failure has grown old.

 

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