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Christmas comes early for Regier; Has $15 million for shopping spree

Imagine the fun you could have if someone walked up, handed over $15 million and said, "You can spend this Friday if you want."

That's essentially the situation in which Darcy Regier finds himself.

The Buffalo Sabres' general manager is two days away from Christmas in July, also known as the opening of NHL free agency. In the past, Regier has expressed his disdain for July 1, bemoaning the high-priced deals that ruin the salary structure he envisions.

This year, thanks to owner Terry Pegula and his open-wallet policy, Regier is eagerly anticipating Friday's noon start of the market.

"You have to give, in this case Terry, a tremendous amount of credit because he's opened up the ability for us to focus on unrestricted free agents and given us the resources," Regier said. "It's a small list this year, but knowing that we have the ability to compete for those players with the other teams is tremendous."

The Sabres would like to add a forward (preferably a center) and a defenseman to their roster. They have enough money to go after any players they want.

The salary cap has risen to $64.3 million for 2011-12, up $4.9 million from last season. The Sabres, according to salary numbers from CapGeek.com, have 15 players signed for $51.8 million. That leaves $12.5 million available. They have committed $3.9 million to their key restricted free agents (forward Nathan Gerbe, goaltender Jhonas Enroth and defensemen Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani), leaving them with $8.6 million in cap room.

In the summertime, teams can spend 10 percent above the salary cap. That additional $6.4 million provides the Sabres with $15 million to entice the available talent.

"We'll certainly be making calls, inquiries, making some offers," Regier said. "In the past it was largely about trades and drafting and developing your own players. A third area has been opened up on the unrestricted side where we can compete for the best, top unrestricted free agents.

"Ultimately, the player is going to make the choice as to where he's going to go, where he wants to play, but to be involved in that process is tremendous for our organization."

Regier will join Pegula and team President Ted Black in Rochester today to formally announce the purchase of the minor-league Americans. When Regier gets back to Buffalo, he might find an even smaller player pool than when he left.

Teams have been persistent about keeping their pending free agents during the past week. Washington re-signed forward Brooks Laich to a six-year, $27 million deal Tuesday, while Carolina kept defenseman Joni Pitkanen for three years and $13.5 million.

"We have targeted players, and going back some players get signed, and there's sort of a resorting, a reanalysis," Regier said. "We'll continue to do that right up till Friday."

The agent for Tim Connolly, the Sabres' marquee UFA, told The News on Tuesday he has not exchanged any contract offers with Buffalo. Regier and J.P. Barry have talked at least once and had plans to chat again.

"We haven't gotten into the stage of making offers to each other," Barry said by phone. "We're just talking about whether or not there's a chance and whether or not it makes sense for them and for us to do something."

Connolly's place in the thin center market can be debated. The 30-year-old, who has been in Buffalo since 2001, has averaged nearly a point per game in four of his past five seasons. However, he has missed significant time because of injury in nearly all of them. He struggled last year with just 13 goals and 42 points in 68 games, suffering multiple fractures to his nose during the regular season and a separated sternum during his goal-less postseason.

"Obviously, Tim's going to be an interesting player," said Barry, who negotiated a two-year, $9 million extension two seasons ago. "As far as production, if you want to line up all the guys available on their ability to produce offense, he's probably right at the top. The thing that can work against Tim is he's had unfortunate injuries, some fluky. It's that injury profile that is the issue."

It would make sense for Connolly to test the market. The salary floor rose along with the cap, so teams have to spend at least $48.3 million. Seven teams are at least $10 million below from the floor, according to CapGeek. Florida has just $23.1 million committed to players, leaving the Panthers with $25 million to spend just to reach the lower limit and a whopping $41 million available to reach the cap.

Florida, though, has no desire to spend toward the cap. The Sabres can, and Regier has the go-ahead to do so.

"It's both different and exciting," Regier said. "Anyone we sign, it will be because we believe they can help us win a championship."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com