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POWER PLAY; Thr rules have changed under new ownership, so the Sabres can make major upgrades to their roster if they are aggressive, creative and smart in the way they spend the boss's money

When this began in 2007, serving as general manager for a day wasn't overly stressful. The Sabres were under financial restraints, so I worked under their basic parameters. Along with the proverbial handcuffs were the built-in excuses.

The first year was all about keeping Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. It meant dumping Maxim Afinogenov, Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen and saving $8.825 million to be used for their co-captains. Instead, the Sabres watched Drury and Briere walk out the door for nothing, kept the other three and, well, you know the rest.

It was a mess.

In 2008, my plan called for dumping Afinogenov, re-signing Ryan Miller for $5.6 million a year and signing free-agent defenseman Brooks Orpik. In 2009, it included hiring Rick Dudley to help me and signing Jay Bouwmeester after Brian Campbell left. Last year, it was trading for gamers, dumping Tim Connolly and listening to offers for Jochen Hecht.

The idea was to be reasonable, but over time GM for a Day evolved into limiting the losses more than building a winner. Signing a big-time free agent such as Marian Hossa wasn't going to happen for a team tighter than my T-shirts, so there was no sense in entertaining the idea. But all along, my goal always has been trying to build a Stanley Cup winner.

Now, it's within reach.

The NHL salary cap was $44 million the first year, but it has grown to $64.3 million going into next season.

The rules have changed under new owner Terry Pegula, who has made winning Cups his top priority. Pegula wants to win sooner than yesterday. He has the wealth, power, passion and backbone to back up his goal. He removed spending limits on hockey decisions, a foreign concept when it comes to the Sabres.

Translation: No more excuses.

Busting open Pegula's piggy bank makes for an exciting opportunity but a daunting challenge just the same. For the first time in franchise history, anything and everything is possible if the Sabres are aggressive, creative and smart.

Buffalo is desperate for a No. 1 center, and two would be ideal along with another dependable defenseman. Robyn Regehr gives them more size, experience and aggression along the blue line. He's an upgrade, but really he's just one piece. Adding the $3 million salary for Ales Kotalik probably would have been a deal-breaker for me. My plan didn't include him before the swap last week, and it doesn't include him now.

Frankly, I'm shocked and a little hurt that they made the move without consulting me. After all, I gave them years of free advice.

The Sabres don't need a massive overall, but let's get something straight: Everybody on my team is available if the price is right. If Wayne Gretzky can get traded, so can Miller, Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek and anyone else.

Unfortunately, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are off the market. Either would have worked in Buffalo. Rumor has it GM Darcy Regier is considering bringing back Tim Connolly, which isn't aggressive, creative or smart.

Actually, it's ridiculous.

Connolly? Kotalik? What, 2007-09 wasn't painful enough? Who else is coming back, Nolan Pratt and Dmitri Kalinin?

>Regier loves mediocrity

Times have changed, but Regier apparently is still smitten with overpaid mediocrity.

In case you were wondering, there's no room for Connolly on my roster. He's fragile and disappears in big games. I'm not enamored with his talent. I don't want my young players seeing a veteran taking nights (weeks?) off and waking up when it suits him. I don't need highlight-reel plays offset by a greater number of giveaways.

I want production. I want winners.

Specifically, I want center Brad Richards. I really wanted Kevin Bieksa but he took less to stay in Vancouver. I would have taken Eric Brewer, but he's gone. I'm now down to James Wisniewski, who I could have had straight up for Connolly before he signed that foolish two-year deal for $9 million, or Christian Ehrhoff.

And I want Pegula to assist me.

Opening his vault is a given, but I also need his charm to help with recruiting. His infectious, homespun personality and win-now attitude raged through town after he took over. They were his greatest assets and biggest contributions to the Sabres this season. He's aggressive, creative and smart. Unlike the owners before him, I actually want him involved.

Yeah, I know Richards isn't spending his idle time checking real-estate listings in Clarence. Let's see if we can change his mind.

Luxury dressing rooms are nice, but players more than anything want three things, in no specific order: money, a chance to win the Stanley Cup and tender loving care. Buffalo's reputation as a crummy city is irrelevant. Why do players line up to play in downtrodden Detroit? Because it has a first-class organization.

Spend a few minutes with my main man, Terry, and you'll understand his commitment to running a top-notch operation. That's what won over Regehr.

And that's what I'm selling to every player across the league.

My work would have started in April with Richards, the marquee forward going into unrestricted free agency. I would have traded a prospect or conditional draft pick for the right to negotiate with him before July 1. It would have meant him waiving his no-trade clause. Now, it's too late in the game. He has told the Stars he's not willing to waive the clause. He's keeping his options open.

I still have a chance to land him.

>Create room for Richards

Richards pocketed $7.8 million last season and could command more this year, but it will require a team that can create enough salary cap space.

We're talking big bucks, but there are solutions.

Money is no object, so I can stash players in the minors and maintain depth without worrying about them counting against the salary cap. It's no big deal if another team plucks them off waivers.

The Sabres were about $20 million under the cap for next season before the Regehr trade heading into the draft, but with me sitting in the big chair Kotalik and his salary and Shaone Morrisonn and his ($2.075 million) will be parked in the AHL unless there's an emergency. Jochen Hecht and his $3.525 million will be traded, waived or sent to the minors in another salary-cap move. Same goes for defenseman Andrej Sekera unless he somehow wins a job in training camp.

Regier did me a favor when he signed Drew Stafford to a four-year deal worth $16 million, avoiding arbitration and locking up the winger for the right price. With Hecht, Sekera and Morrisonn off my payroll and Regehr added, it leaves me about $21.7 million going into July 1. It's plenty to make key additions and cover new contracts for restricted free agents without arbitration rights.

Nathan Gerbe, Mike Weber, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Jhonas Enroth are restricted, and none has any real bargaining power. Give them mandatory 10 percent raises on their current contracts, another bump if they're willing to sign longer deals. Sorry, boys. Prove yourselves again, and you'll be rewarded.

Myers' contract is certain to cause problems after next season, but it could become easier with the cap increasing every year. We'll work later on getting Myers locked into a long-term deal in the neighborhood of $6 million per season that would start in 2012-13. We'll deal with him before next summer.

This summer is about signing Richards, who would add credibility and make Buffalo an attractive destination for other good players. Richards said he would like to return to Tampa Bay, but the Lightning need to re-sign Steven Stamkos. The Rangers and Leafs are always lurking along with a few other teams.

The first next move is sending Air Pegula to Dallas by 12:01 a.m. Friday and getting him to listen. Then, we roll out the red carpet during his visit to Pegulaville.

Show him the finer parts of Western New York while avoiding Route 33 from the airport to HSBC Arena. Park the limo, parade him through a party in the plaza and introduce him to an excited fan base. My guess is $1 beers and a decent band would provide the required atmosphere.

Remember, this is the same town -- and it still astonishes me -- that gave Terrell Owens a key to the city. Richards isn't a diva. He is a wine connoisseur, so show him the Finger Lakes. Heck, buy him one of the Finger Lakes. Show him a first-class franchise. Show him the money.

I'm told Richards would respond to such treatment, so it could be enough to pry him away from Rangers coach John Tortorella, his boss in Tampa Bay, and other suitors.

Now, how much money is enough?

Unfortunately, convincing players that winning comes first means overpaying for superstars who fill team needs. Richards isn't looking for top dollar, but he wants to be compensated and play for a winner. Blow him away with a contract properly structured, and everybody can be happy.

New restrictions on player contracts before they turn 40 -- thanks largely to Ilya Kovalchuk and New Jersey -- limit the flexibility for players and teams trying to circumvent the salary cap. Richards, 31, would be most valuable in his first five years on any deal, so it would need to be front-loaded and still work with the cap.

Would an eight-year deal worth $60 million but is actually sweeter work? Richards would get $12 million the first year, $10 million in each of the next three, $8 million in the fifth year, $4 million the next two seasons and $2 million for the final year. That's $50 million in the first five years of the deal, but the cap hit would only be $7.5 million. If either side isn't happy after five years, the final three seasons could be bought out for $6.67 million.

Really, it could amount to five years for $56.67 million, or $11.33 million until he's 36. Is that too much money for Richards? Heck yeah, but money is no object. He's the best center on the market, and the talent pool isn't any deeper next summer.

If that doesn't work, I'm prepared to throw a whopper of an offer toward Stamkos that would pay him $12 million per year -- 10 years or more for $120 million or more -- and wait for Tampa Bay to match the deal while it tries to rationalize $10 million for Vincent Lecavalier.

Wisniewski and Ehrhoff had similar deals last season in the $3.1 to $3.25 million range. I would offer either one a six-year deal for $27.5 million, with annual salaries 5, 5, 5, 5, 3.5, 3.5 with the possibility of a buyout after four years. He would still collect $20 in the first four years but the cap hit would only be $4.5 million. It also leads the option for a buyout or a trade toward the end of the deal. Is that too much? Yes, but I need these guys.

Adding a star such as Shea Weber or Drew Doughty would be great, but it would mean giving up something substantial in return.

Regardless, I need a good player, preferably with experience who can help stabilize a young but talented defense corps already in place.

Richards is the key.

He is a veteran leader who won the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup with the Bolts. Imagine him on a line with any combination of Stafford, Vanek, Jason Pominville, Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis and Gerbe. He would provide a major boost to the power play and allow Lindy Ruff to play Boyes where he belongs, on the wing. He also would help guide promising rookie Luke Adam.

Plus, he would be strictly an addition.

His arrival would make Derek Roy no better than a second-line center and, with another move, possibly a third-line pivot. Roy has been a top center on this team, but not on mine. The success Roy and Vanek had in the first two years after the lockout came from the third line, behind those centered by Briere and Drury.

Centers are scarce, so options after Richards are limited mostly to trades. The cost of signing Stamkos means losing four first-round picks.

A source said the Sabres offered Roy and Zach Kassian to Ottawa for Jason Spezza but were rejected. Spezza, 28, is an intriguing player. I would consider sweetening the offer for him because the goal is winning now. He has $25 million remaining over four years on his contract. He also has a $7 million cap hit and has failed to play more than 68 games in four of the last six seasons. He's not my first choice, but I'm listening.

I want to know what Colorado would want for Paul Stastny. Sidney Crosby isn't going anywhere, but could Evgeni Malkin be had for the right package after the Penguins learned how to win without his $8.7 million salary? Probably not. He also has a no-trade clause, but you know anything can happen when Mike Richards and Carter are shipped out on the same day.

How about Jordan Staal or Patrick Sharp or Hossa or...

Anyone who can improve my team. I have NHL players, prospects and picks ready for delivery.

Ville Leino is an underrated jewel who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. He emerged in the playoffs with Detroit, continued his success with the Flyers and can play on the second and third lines. He can help in many areas, especially with the right players around him. He made $800,000. He's worth $3 million. I would be willing to shuffle around money to sign him, but it depends on whether or not I sign Richards. Leino comes with an asterisk.

>Other options available

There are other free agents who would provide an upgrade on the front lines. Erik Cole is a big forward who can add leadership and big-game experience. He had 26 goals and 52 points with Carolina and made $3 million. Perhaps $3.5 million would do the trick. Brooks Laich is an unrestricted free agent who averaged 21 goals and 53 points over the past three seasons in Washington. He made $2.4 million last year.

Tomas Fleischmann, who had 35 goals and 82 points over his last 114 NHL games, is another. He made $2.6 million last season and had 21 points in 22 games for Colorado before suffering blood clots in his lungs.

Obviously, I can't have all of them. Nail down Richards, and go from there. If not, it opens up money elsewhere. Help is available if you're aggressive, creative and smart.

The Sabres remain young along the blue line, so perhaps I can grab another defenseman who can challenge in the top six without breaking the bank. That's assuming I don't keep Sekera, who made $1 million last season.

Free agent Jonathan Ericsson, 27, would be a nice addition for $1.8 million if he doesn't re-sign with Detroit. If he's gone, Leino comes back into play while I look for another bargain-basement defenseman or chop my 14th forward.

It's where role players such as Matt Ellis come into play. He had an NHL salary of $625,000 last season. There are dozens of cheap, dependable forwards out there. If that's my biggest problem, I'm in great shape.

Tim Kennedy and his $166,666 buyout still counts against the cap, but it still leaves me with about $1,625,334 in breathing room and more flexibility before training camp. It should be enough to push my team forward with other decisions to come.

If I'm aggressive, creative and smart, I might be able to get them over the top at the trade deadline.


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