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Get an Elite D

NHL free agency begins Thursday, and I agree with my colleague, Mike Harrington, who would like to see the Sabres make a pitch for one of the top free agent defensemen. It's pretty clear that Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder aren't coming back to Buffalo. That takes away two of the team's top four blueliners from a year ago, while clearing more than $6 million in salary from the books. Oh well, two more veterans are likely walking out the door, with the Sabres getting nothing in return.

The Sabres need to add at least one top-flight "D" to maintain their momentum from last year's regular season, when they won the division title. Ideally, they would add a solid puck-moving defenseman and a veteran stay-at-home type. But you know Darcy Regier. He has always been reluctant to invest in big-money free agents. Regier prefers to get players on the second financial tier. You know, like Tim Connolly at $4.5 million, Derek Roy at $4 million, and a whole cast of guys in the $3 million range who seem like bargains until it's time to produce in the playoffs.

Nowadays, NHL teams win by paying superstar money to a couple of guys and balancing out the payroll with shrewd investments at the lower end. The Flyers were criticized for the Daniel Briere deal, but he has justified the money at playoff time. The Penguins and Blackhawks, the last two Cup winners, had megabucks players on the roster. It catches up with them, granted, but at least they raised the Cup.

So at the very least, the Sabres should sign one of the top defensemen -- Sergei Gonchar, Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Pavel Kubina. But I'm always prepared for Regier to reach down to the lower tier, rather than pay someone a big salary that might upset his delicate salary structure. But bold moves are in order. The Sabres have an elite goalie in Ryan Miller. They need to make a concerted run during Miller's prime. No more excuses about being a young team in transition. 

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