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Hasty moves at trade deadline won't benefit Sabres

Less than a month away, with the Buffalo Sabres equipped for one playoff round but not much more, resisting the temptation is difficult. The NHL trade deadline is March 4, and For Sale signs are dangling from the necks of several players who are capable of pushing the Sabres into the second round, maybe deeper.

The Sabres have enough assets to make a significant trade and improve their chances in the playoffs. It's true, but ask yourself: Where is all this really going? The standard isn't advancing in the playoffs this season. It's winning the Stanley Cup. They're not good enough this year, and it's not going to change after the deadline.

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier will keep looking in the next few weeks knowing he doesn't have a championship team. Lindy Ruff will keep coaching, the way he always does. The Sabres should make the playoffs, bringing with them faint hope but hope nonetheless. Remember 1999? You never know what can happen in the playoffs.

But unless some ridiculous offer comes their way, the Sabres shouldn't do anything at the deadline other than plan for the future. Doing nothing shouldn't be a chore for Regier, who has been ripped royally for doing exactly that. This year, though, doing nothing makes the most sense.

Why?

The Sabres have their core players locked into long-term contracts. If they can land a good player who will be under contract for the next several years, fine. Otherwise, dumping dead weight or hefty salaries should be the goal. And that, alone, is a tall order because of the salary cap.

Buffalo's shopping season is this summer, when the cap squeezes a few players off rosters the way Craig Rivet popped free last summer. That's when the Sabres will have more leverage and more room in the budget. They could wind up being considerably stronger next season if they're patient now and strike later.

And, really, they might not have much choice.

The Sabres players worth moving are A) injured; B) unproductive or C) set to become unrestricted free agents. Maxim Afinogenov is all of the above, marking the first time he's been associated with D. He wasn't effective before injuring his groin, he's making $3.5 million and he'll become an unrestricted free agent in July. They couldn't move him last summer. Only a sucker would want him now.

Henrik Tallinder has value because he's signed through next season, but he can't get the Sabres an honest return after suffering a serious shoulder injury. The Sabres might as well keep him with the idea he can help them this season and perhaps get them closer to equal value in the offseason.

Tim Connolly would bring a marginal return, such as a mid-round pick or a project, because he's a high-risk player who can hit the open market. The Sabres would be better off keeping him for the stretch run while trying to convince him to re-sign at a major discount. At least that's the plan. The hometown discount is the least Connolly could do after the Sabres faithfully signed him to a three-year deal worth $8.7 million and watched him play less than a third of the games.

Buffalo needs Ales Kotalik and Jaroslav Spacek to make the playoffs this year, thus helping the bottom line for next season. What about Daniel Paille, who skated into the weekend with five goals in 50 games after scoring 19 last season? Or Jochen Hecht, who had six goals in 40 games after scoring 22 last season? They're a tough sell because both are underachieving.

The Sabres aren't trading away top prospects, most of whom are playing under their rookie contracts. Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy aren't in the NHL, but they will be next season. Chris Butler and Mike Weber should be here to stay. Combined NHL salaries next season for the aforementioned four: $2.634 million. A bargain.

Marc-Andre Gragnani will join them after a little more seasoning in Portland. Mark Mancari, a restricted free agent, is inching closer to the big leagues but could be trade bait. In a few years, skyscraper defenseman Tyler Myers, who grew an inch since the summer and is now approaching 6-foot-8, will be ready.

All are 22 years old or younger, all have NHL potential and none will break the bank any time soon.

You want the Sabres to make a deal? Check back in two years, when they're a player or two from Cup contention rather than five or six.

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Murray mired in muck

Let me get this straight: John Muckler was fired as the Senators' GM because he didn't do enough at the trade deadline in 2007, the year Ottawa won the Eastern Conference, but his replacement, Bryan Murray, is still there?

The Senators have been in disarray for two years under Murray, starting with hiring and firing coach John Paddock last season. Murray went behind the bench and failed to rescue them, so he hired Craig Hartsburg. Hartsburg was fired last week and replaced by Cory Clouston. Both Paddock and Hartsburg were in the first year of three-year deals when they were fired.

Ottawa's problem hasn't been coaching. It's been personnel, and that falls directly on Murray. He re-signed goofball goalie Ray Emery, who was bought out for $6 million with two years left on a three-year deal. He spent so much money ($25.1 million for next season) on Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson that he couldn't afford to keep Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros and traded away Joe Corvo.

Now, his payroll, his blue line and his goaltending are a mess. Owner Eugene Melnyk and CEO Roy Mlakar can't be too happy. Don't be surprised if Murray survives the trade deadline and then gets kicked to the curb.

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Pronger available

The Ducks are dangling defenseman Chris Pronger while they cut payroll and make the transition toward youth. The problem with moving the hard-hitting 34-year-old is finding a team that can fit him under the cap.

Pronger makes $6.25 million and is signed through next season, which makes him valuable for any Cup contender in the next two years. He'll be owed about $1.3 million for this year if a deal is made at the deadline. The surging Devils would be an ideal fit because they're in contention and have cap room.

Buffalo also has cap space for Pronger -- yes, it's tempting -- but Anaheim is looking to raid trading partners for proven prospects. Florida and Carolina in the East and Vancouver in the West are in similar situations.

Pronger could be reunited with General Manager Brian Burke in Toronto, where there is money to spend and prospects to trade. Pronger would accelerate the Leafs' rebuilding process and Burke would likely re-sign the bruiser beyond next season.

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Bruins winging it

The Bruins were sniffing around for a winger and could take a run at hometown boy Keith Tkachuk or Oswego native Erik Cole. Both are rentals, but Boston has room under the cap with Marco Sturm on the long-term injury list. The Bruins have backup goalie Manny Fernandez floating as trade bait.

Either would be a good fit for the Bruins. Tkachuk has been more productive with 15 goals and 32 points while Cole had 10 goals and 22 points. Tkachuk is making $4.5 million while Cole is making $4 million. Cole averaged 27 goals and 57 points before this season, and he won a Stanley Cup with Carolina.

Tkachuk wants a Cup any way he can get one, but returning home and winning in Boston would be more special. Cole would welcome the change. He was miserable about the offseason trade that sent him to Edmonton, and that was compounded when he had three goals and eight points in his first 30 games.

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No Lightning thunder

Vincent Lecavalier wasted no time dropping his gloves last week after Islanders forward Tim Jackman bowled over goalie Karri Ramo, but the rare tussle involving the superstar center did nothing to inspire his teammates.
Lecavalier jumped Jackman and held his own in a brief bout. The fight was greeted mostly with yawns from a Lightning team that watched the Islanders take over with three goals in the second period en route to a 3-1 win.

"I was extremely, extremely disappointed with our players," GM Brian Lawton said. "Vinny did the most noble thing you could do in his position outside of scoring, which is stand up for the team, and the team didn't respond. That was very hurtful, disappointing and upsetting."

And predictable.

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Around the boards

*Marian Gaborik, undergoing twice-a-day rehab following hip surgery, could return for the final three weeks of the season but not before the trade deadline. You could still see a team, such as the Canadiens, take a chance if he comes cheap. The Habs were looking for help before losing Robert Lang to a severed Achilles tendon.

*White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf reportedly kicked the tires in Phoenix before backing away from thoughts of buying the troubled Coyotes. The smart play would be waiting for the Desert Dogs, whose losses approached $45 million, to fall into bankruptcy and buying them at a discount. It worked for Tom Golisano in Buffalo.

*South Buffalo native Patrick Kane admitted he rushed back after missing two games with a nagging high ankle sprain. He had one goal in a 17-game stretch. "It's tough for me watching," he said. "When you're in the press box, you realize how much you love the game and how much you want to be out there."

*Chris Osgood allowed three goals or more in 21 of 27 starts this season, his 3.29 GAA was 42nd and his .880 save percentage was last among 44 goalies who qualified. "To win in the end, you really need good goaltending," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "The challenge for [Osgood or Ty Conklin] is to step up, grab the job and look after it."

*Blue Jackets center Michael Peca on coach Ken Hitchcock: "We're a team that, when we get down, from the coach out, we just seem to get a little rattled too easily."

Hitchcock on Peca: "The coach gets upset for one reason only, when the team game isn't out there. I think Peca probably would like to take that [comment] back, but he doesn't get a do-over."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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