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Sabres move forward a bit by standing still

The new collective bargaining agreement was designed to bring stability back to the NHL, but so many players switched teams last week that it was hard to keep up. Ninety minutes after the trade deadline, Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier was still trying to figure out who landed where.

Now that the dust has cleared, the Sabres have even more reasons to be optimistic as they charge toward the playoffs. Look around the Eastern Conference and ask yourself which teams made dramatic improvements. Finally, the gap has widened and it's not about payroll. It's about talent.

Searching for a team that traded its way into contention? Ignore the East and go West.

Edmonton, Los Angeles and Vancouver made major changes, buckling to "For Sale" signs in the East while trying to keep up with one another. It left the Sabres with a legitimate chance of beating any team in the Eastern Conference over a best-of-seven series.

Carolina was busy, but it isn't much better. Doug Weight could be more effective with Mark Recchi on his flank, but the two veterans are nearing the end of their careers. If they don't find one another on the ice quickly, they might actually drag down the 'Canes.

Ottawa? The Senators added some scoring punch with Tyler Arnason, assuming he cleans up his act, but they didn't need an offensive threat. They needed goaltending help because you never know when -- if -- Dominik Hasek is coming back. Like the Hurricanes, the Sens are still a powerhouse. They're also vulnerable.

Montreal rid itself of an expensive problem child in injured goalie Jose Theodore, but in return the Canadiens are stuck with David Aebischer. The Habs will likely ride Cristobal Huet, who remains suspect despite his four shutouts this season.

Boston traded speedy winger Sergei Samsonov to Edmonton for Marty Reasoner, prospect Yan Stastny and a draft pick. OK, so the Bruins are slower. It's been their problem all season. The New York Rangers helped themselves with Sandis Ozolinsh, but he's not the player he was five years ago.

Toronto? Please. The Maple Leafs acted as if their aging and expensive lineup will somehow snap out of its funk and suddenly become a playoff team. They needed to get younger and faster. Trading for retread Luke Richardson wasn't the answer. At least the New York Islanders succumbed to the reality that they're simply not good enough.

Philadelphia looks the same after grabbing defenseman Denis Gauthier, who's on his third team in two seasons. New Jersey made a couple of uninspiring moves along the blue line, trading away Sean Brown and acquiring Brad Lukowich.

Out West, the Canucks beefed up their defense and added Mika Noronen. The Kings acquired forward Mark Parrish and defenseman Brent Sopel. The Oilers parted with a first-round pick for No. 1 goalie Dwayne Roloson and added Samsonov to an already fast lineup.

No wonder the Sabres didn't need to do anything rash at the deadline. The other teams were doing it for them. Ottawa, Carolina and Buffalo appear to be the class of the East. They can worry about the West when the time is right, in about three months.

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Cole has a point

Erik Cole had every reason to be furious over the three-game suspension handed down to Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik, the Amherst native who is quickly earning a reputation as a cheap-shot artist.

Cole suffered a fractured vertebra and is sidelined for the season after Orpik hit him from behind. Cole was clearly in a vulnerable position when Orpik drilled him into the boards. It was completely unnecessary. Orpik deserved at least five games. There are no guarantees Cole will play again.

"Unfortunately, the consequences from the league really are not that bad," Cole said. "Three games for him are like a holiday, three games without going out there and getting his lunch handed to him by the other teams in the league. Sounds like a pretty good trade-off to me." Cole's right.

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Goalie question

Senators GM John Muckler must have some reservations about backup goalie and resident goofball Ray Emery, who has taken over the No. 1 job while Hasek nurses his groin-hamstring injury.

Mike Morrison didn't play well for Edmonton, but many believe he can someday be a talented goaltender. For now, he's another body should the Sens become fed up with Emery. Not a bad gig for Morrison, whose 10-4 record with the Oilers was deceiving. He had a 2.83 goals-against average and an .884 save percentage.

"I was hoping somebody would take me," Morrison said. "I actually thought it might be Vancouver, but Ottawa? First place, I'll take it. Coming out of [the University of Maine], not much was expected of me. I'm sure with my play, at times, [the Oilers] wished I'd fall off the planet, but I just wanted to show them I was a good player."

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Looking ahead?

You can't help but wonder whether the Avalanche will basically pack it in now that leading scorer Marek Svatos is out for the season with a shoulder injury. If the Avs make the playoffs, great, but they're already looking toward next year.

It's the only way to explain why they would acquire Theodore, who's sidelined with a fractured heel. Theodore couldn't stop a beach ball this season in Montreal, which explains his 3.48 GAA and .881 save percentage. It's not a good sign when you can't play well in your hometown, especially that one.

The Habs were fortunate to dump him in Colorado. Avs GM Pierre Lacroix isn't afraid of taking the chances and apparently believes he can fix the former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner. He'd better be right. Theodore is pocketing $4.5 million this season.

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Wild's bad move

Wild coach Jacques Lemaire can distance himself from defenseman Willie Mitchell all he wants, so long as he understands a good one got away to Dallas. He's one of the most underrated defensemen in the league.

Mitchell was Minnesota's best blue-liner by a mile, a player who would have looked good in Buffalo. With his asking price climbing going into a contract year and the Wild already handing out the biggest deal in club history to goalie Manny Fernandez, it panicked.

"He feels he could get $3.5 [million], good for him," Lemaire said. "I won't lose sleep because we lose a player. He wants to go for the money, go for the money. You know, the Earth is still going to turn. Players, they come and go."

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Around the boards

No disrespect to Roloson, a good guy and a better goalie, but the Oilers overpaid for him when they sent a first-round pick to Minnesota. Rolie's contract is up after the season, and he could command some attention.

The Panthers opened the checkbook to keep Olli Jokinen and appear intent on pushing their payroll into the $37 million range. They could quickly run out of cap room this summer once they get goalie Roberto Luongo locked up.

Philadelphia made a pitch for Recchi before the Penguins traded the veteran winger to Carolina. Recchi would have been better off in Philly, where he knows the personnel after spending five-plus seasons there.

Chicago attempted to trade former Sabres Matthew Barnaby and Curtis Brown but found no takers. Barnaby has another year on his contract, Brown two. Don't be surprised if the Blackhawks buy out Brown's contract, which could signal the end of his career.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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