One year ago the Buffalo Sabres adopted the policy of not negotiating contract extensions during the season.
Now they might be inclined to disregard it because they face a different set of circumstances involving the soul of the roster.
In three weeks, NHL teams will be allowed to start hammering out deals with players who are on one-year contracts and headed into free agency. What transpires between Jan. 1 and the end of the season, particularly whether leading scorer Daniel Briere can be locked up before he hits the open market, will have a significant impact on what the Sabres will look like next season.
A few of the summer's more attractive unrestricted free agents could be Sabres. In addition to Briere, others who could go to the highest bidder if the Sabres don't re-sign them are center Chris Drury, steady veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen and perhaps the best goalie of this free-agency class, Martin Biron. Fourth-line winger Adam Mair also is scheduled to become unrestricted.
The Sabres chose last season not to negotiate with their pending free agents, and maybe it cost them. Winger Mike Grier and defensemen Jay McKee, Rory Fitzpatrick and Doug Janik all signed elsewhere. The feeling is that Buffalo could have signed McKee for a lot less than the $16 million over four years that he got from St. Louis.
But General Manager Darcy Regier knew he was going into last offseason with a roster in concept only. The Sabres had only three regulars under contract, none of them defensemen or goaltenders. A league-high 12 restricted free agents filed for arbitration.
The summer of 2007 appears much tidier for the Sabres, who have many of their players under multiyear contracts but with less flexibility under the salary cap. Regier also is better educated on how the new collective bargaining agreement works.
"Our situation this year is already different than it was last year," Regier said. "There are way more differences than there are similarities. So for me it's a very different world."
The biggest decisions will involve Buffalo's co-captains. The prevailing belief in the hockey community is that the Sabres won't be able to afford to keep them both, that they will be faced with the unenviable task of choosing one over the other.
"For me," Regier said, "it's never been a Chris or Danny decision. It's what's best for the overall team. They're two important members of the team, but we'll make those decisions based on what's best for the team as opposed to individual choices, this player over that player."
Regier said it was possible the Sabres could re-sign Drury and Briere, but the GM noted that would seriously affect the rest of the roster if too much money is sunk into the center position -- even if owner B. Thomas Golisano will allow his team to spend up to the salary cap again, which is a big assumption.
Another wrinkle is the status of concussed center Tim Connolly. If he's able to recover the Sabres can better withstand the loss of another center. If he doesn't recover, it would provide the Sabres cap relief.
Briere was awarded $5 million in arbitration, while Drury is making $3.154 million in the last season of a four-year deal. Both so far are enjoying the types of seasons that would command raises.
"From a logistics standpoint, it can be done," Regier said. "It's just whether it makes sense with the cap situation. It's always about choices. If you do something in this area it may not allow you to do some things in some other areas."
Briere said he doesn't see why the Sabres can't keep him and Drury together.
"I certainly hope they do," Briere said. "With the way it's been working out, I love being co-captain with Chris. I think we complement each other really well. If I stay here I'd want Chris around, and I have the feeling that's mutual."
The Sabres should have extra cash to spend this offseason. Biron, who is making $2.128 million, doesn't want to be Ryan Miller's backup anymore and is almost certainly gone. Numminen's $2.6 million salary also could come off the books. Numminen, although still serviceable, will turn 39 this summer and could retire.
Plus, the salary cap might go up again.
"It's too early to say where the money will be coming from, but I'm certainly hoping we can find a way," Briere said.
Because Drury is not on a one-year deal, the Sabres have been free to negotiate with him since July 1. But with talks opening up for everyone on Jan. 1, Drury admitted it's getting interesting.
"Since you're 18, you're owned by somebody," Drury said. "It's certainly an intriguing time in my career and anyone's career. Also, being able to come to the rink as a Sabre has been a huge thrill. Hopefully, that can continue."
Briere and Drury sorted out the positives and negatives to negotiating in-season. Neither wants their contract situation to become a distraction, yet each said he would welcome any dialogue between the Sabres and his agent. Briere is represented by Pat Brisson, Drury by Mark Witkin.
"We don't need distractions," Briere said. "I'll let my agent deal with it, but I'd rather have it done at the end of the year. I see us sitting down after the playoffs and seeing where we are."
Said Drury: "I just keep my mouth closed and my eyes and ears open. I have a job to do. That's pretty much where my focus is. That's why you have an agent, but if and when the time comes I'm going to be very involved."
Regier in the past has given in-season extensions to important players, most notably goalie Dominik Hasek and captain Stu Barnes.
In this case, though, Regier might be reluctant to sign one too far in advance of the other. The appearance of favoritism between captains, no matter how misplaced, could disrupt Buffalo's remarkable chemistry.
"That's a very real possibility to the extent someone would get signed and someone would not get signed," Regier said. "There's feelings involved.
"You're not going to manage everyone's feelings. You just make decisions based on what matters most to the team."