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Connolly deal can't be dismissed

In terms of truth, I'd rather swallow whatever drivel A-Rod is selling than the garble generated near the NHL trade deadline. The only thing planted between an overage of gossip and a shortage of substance is an exaggeration of facts. But every now and again, a juicy hockey rumor actually makes sense.

That brings us to the latest "Tim Connolly is headed for [insert team]" chatter making the rounds in recent weeks. This one had the pending unrestricted free agent going to Columbus, where the Blue Jackets have been clamoring for a center of Connolly's ilk.

And why not?

Connolly alongside Rick Nash would be frightening with the big winger manning the left side and the right-handed center wheeling and dealing the way he can when healthy. Nash potted 26 goals before their game Tuesday in Calgary, an output that would soar past 40 with a true playmaker to his right.

Coming back, supposedly, would be defenseman Rostislav Klesla. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder has been sidelined since Feb. 10 with a shoulder injury, but should be back soon. Klesla, 26, taken fourth overall in 2000, is signed through next season at $2.25 million.

At least that's the name floating around. Any chance Columbus also would take winger Maxim Afinogenov for cosmetics, making it look like a heist for the Jackets even if the Sabres knew better? OK, let's not get greedy.

Buffalo had best be prepared for that presentation or one similar before the deadline. The Sabres should have several offers for Connolly, so they'll need an indication one way or another whether they can strike a fair deal with the flashy but risky center. Fair in his case means a drastic pay cut from the $3.5 million he's pocketing this season.

Of course, such a swap would send opposite messages. Columbus entered its game Tuesday night in sixth place in the Ziploc-tight Western Conference. The Jackets' goal is making the playoffs after missing their first seven years, thereby legitimizing a hockey franchise in the land of Ohio State football 2 4/7 . Connolly would provide hope.

In Buffalo, his departure would be perceived as giving up on the postseason. Sure, planning for the next season gets old for a franchise that has been around for nearly four decades and still hasn't won the Stanley Cup. Klesla wouldn't be the missing piece so much as one missing piece. He's serviceable. He's better than nothing. So if the Jackets are serious, the Sabres should listen.

Understand, I'm not reversing fields here after suggesting recently that they should keep Connolly with the idea they can re-sign him. These circumstances have changed. Thomas Vanek has a broken jaw, Ryan Miller a high-ankle sprain, and the Sabres are running out of time.

It's not being pessimistic, folks. It's being realistic. The Sabres are barely above average with Connolly, Vanek and Miller. Unless they find that Connolly can be had for the right price, which appears unlikely, he becomes an expendable asset at the trade deadline. He can help build for a future without him.

Buffalo looked like a team going nowhere Tuesday night in a 3-2 loss to an Anaheim team in slow motion. Patrick Lalime was left hanging for a breakaway goal in the first period, allowed Todd Marchant's shorty that appeared to be deflected and watched the last one bounce off Paul Gaustad.

The Sabres played hard. They had an overwhelming advantage in shots on goal and scoring chances. They kept coming and scored late in the game. But in the end, they weren't good enough against a ninth-place team in the Western Conference, one expected to be sellers at the deadline.

At least that's the rumor. It's time for the Sabres to face the truth.


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