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GMs need a dose of realism as deadline approaches

Forget all the deals and all the hype that comes with them at this time of year. The only team truly satisfied with the NHL trade deadline is the one that wins the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh took home the biggest prize last season when Marian Hossa arrived from Atlanta, but in the end Detroit was much happier with Brad Stuart from Los Angeles.

The biggest mistake general managers make is getting carried away with their own teams and convincing themselves they have a Cup contender when, as Atlanta GM Don Waddell learned two years ago, they're dreaming. Such roads lead to two places, the country club and the unemployment office.

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier, despite hanging on too long to certain players over the years, usually has a good sense of his team going into the playoffs. He knows the Sabres simply aren't in position this season to make an honest run. They need four or five upgrades, a little more size up front, toughness at the blue line, another scorer and playmaker.

Unfortunately, they have neither the assets nor the time to address their shortcomings between now and the deadline Wednesday. They want to make the playoffs without losing sight of their long-term goals, which is contending for the Stanley Cup in the next few years or, presumably, sometime before hell freezes over.

And that leaves Regier in a twisted, unenviable position with the deadline looming and the market looking less stable than Joaquin Phoenix. Money matters to this organization, and it should. Nobody wants to revisit the fatalistic days of the Rigases. Making the playoffs is important to the bottom line.

Regier navigated through the deadline 10 times in his career, had more success some years than others. Never has the situation been so complex as the one facing him this season. The Sabres are battling through major injuries to key players while teetering in eighth place. Their pending unrestricted free agents can help them make the playoffs if they stay, help Buffalo strengthen its future if they go.

Making matters worse, it's much more difficult to get deals done these days with the economy tanking, the salary cap expected to decrease, the age of unrestricted free agency at 25, the league tightening and the collective bargaining agreement expiring in two years. It's extremely tricky for Buffalo in particular, given all the additional factors.

"You know what the variables are," Regier said. "You just don't know how they're going to play out. It's not just those things. It's not even, 'Do you buy or do you sell,' depending on the situation. It's, 'What can you get if you want to sell?' "

Great question. Anybody have an answer? No.

Regier doesn't even know for sure if he's buying or selling. The Sabres would like to keep Tim Connolly, but they would trade him in a heartbeat if they were presented with a great offer. The better time to buy will likely be in the summer, when the Sabres have more leverage and money.

Funny, but Regier can't win or lose Wednesday. There's a strong case for, and equally strong argument against, whatever decision he makes. If he trades Connolly & Co., his team and its fans will believe he's giving up the season. If he keeps them, people will whine about him lacking foresight and not facing reality.

Does anybody have any aspirin?

The stronger play would be selling, assuming offers are reasonable, because the Sabres are a year or two away from becoming a contending team. If Connolly really wants to return, the Sabres can trade him and re-sign him over the summer. History suggests Regier will do something in between and will try having it both ways.

It means trading Connolly or Ales Kotalik or Jaroslav Spacek, but not all three, and taking whatever he can get for Maxim Afinogenov. Henrik Tallinder could be sent packing for the right price. That way, the Sabres get something in return for the future and still have a chance to make the playoffs.

"You want to make an attempt to cover both things," he said. "The marketplace hasn't been determined yet. It's still in a tire-kicking mode. The asking price for the few teams selling is pretty high right now. It hasn't settled out yet, and I'm not sure what that will mean going into the deadline. You're always trying to balance the short [term] and the long [term]. You're always trying to balance both."

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Goalie problems

Red Wings GM Ken Holland continues to get asked about whether he's looking for a goalie with Chris Osgood struggling almost all season.

Osgood was terrific last season en route to the Stanley Cup, but his 18-5-7 record going into the weekend was dented by a 3.29 GAA that was rated 42nd in the league and a .879 save percentage that was 44th.

Backup Ty Conklin has been much better (22-7-1, 2.28 GAA, .918 SP) but has six minutes of postseason experience in his career. The Red Wings haven't decided on their No. 1 netminder for the postseason, but Holland insists he had no plans to look for one during the annual swap meet.

"Absolutely not, is that clear enough?" Holland said. "I believe Ozzie's gonna play the way he can down the stretch. I like our one-two punch in goal. If we play good team defense, our goaltending is every bit as good as we need it to be."

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Pick up the phone

Wild GM Doug Risebrough will be speed-dialing the Canadiens and screaming from Twin City rooftops if doctors Tuesday offer good news about Marian Gaborik's recovery.

Gaborik has played only six games all season and has spent the past two months trying to overcome a hip injury that required surgery. He's hoping the medical staff tells him Tuesday that he can intensify training.

The Wild are almost certain to lose him to free agency after the season would like to trade him while they can. He's still likely to be on the sidelines for another two weeks. Teams aren't exactly lining up for him, but Montreal might take the chance.

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Old-timers day

Oilers part-time defenseman Theo Peckham was still getting heckled Tuesday for fighting Sharks geezer Claude Lemieux the previous week. Lemieux, 43, was in his fifth season when Peckham, 21, was born. It led to this exchange last week before the Oilers played the Lightning.

Reporter: "You going after Gary Roberts tonight? He's a lot younger. He's only 42."

Peckham: "Nah, I'm thinking of fighting an 18-year-old. Maybe I'll try [Steven] Stamkos [his offseason training partner]."

Stamkos: "I don't know what he's thinking. He better find another 18-year-old to pick on."

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Help wanted

The Sabres' goaltending situation became shaky after Ryan Miller suffered a high-ankle sprain, but it was nothing compared to the mess in AHL Portland. The Pirates darned near scoured the local beer leagues for anyone looking to turn pro.

Portland used eight goaltenders going into the weekend, six of whom played four games or less for the Pirates this season. Former sixth-round pick Adam Dennis, backing up Jhonas Enroth, is out for the season. They signed John DeCaro, who suffered a broken collarbone. The latest was Kellen Briggs, who played with Thomas Vanek at the University of Minnesota.

Where was Briggs before getting the call?

"Ontario," Pirates coach Kevin Dineen told the Portland Press Herald.

That would be Ontario, Calif., where he was playing for the Ontario Reign of the East Coast Hockey League. And to think he was the third guy for the Reign, playing just 12 games and posting a 2.43 GAA and a .927 save percentage.

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Around the boards

*League honchos are keeping close watch on how the Flyers manage the salary cap now that old friend Daniel Briere is ready to play. Philly needs to account for his $8 million salary when he returned to full health, but it appeared the Flyers extended his stay on the shelf while they made moves to get his money under the cap. That's a no-no.

*The Blue Jackets are still interested in Tim Connolly while searching for a playmaking center. Columbus has been poking around about Jordan Staal, but he's likely to stay in Pittsburgh with the Penguins still in the playoff race. Calgary's Matthew Lombardi is another possibility, and he's signed through next season.

*Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster, rehabbing his shattered femur for 11 months, made a classy move in calling 15-year-old Tom Royea, a schoolboy player who suffered a similar injury. "Sometimes you just need to talk to somebody who's gone through it to really trust it'll be OK," said Foster, who was expected back soon.

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Quotable

Lemieux after getting booed in Joe Louis Arena, where he remains Enemy No. 1: "I thought they were cheering. I thought they were saying La-Muuuuu."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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