This is part of a series looking at Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs. Today: What if the Sabres retained star forwards Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in July 2007?
Public discourse surrounding one of the darkest days in Sabres franchise history still bothers Tom Golisano almost 13 years later.
In a span of almost five hours on July 1, 2007, the Sabres lost their two top forwards as Daniel Briere left for an eight-year, $52 million offer with the Philadelphia Flyers and Chris Drury agreed to terms with the New York Rangers on a five-year, $35.25 million contract.
The co-captains wanted to stay together. They were even willing to accept less money to remain in Buffalo because they thought the Sabres' roster had the makings of a longtime Stanley Cup contender after consecutive conference finals appearances.
Yet neither was expected to return when free agency opened that summer.
"I know all the inside information about why it happened, the very logical process we went through and the reasons it happened," Golisano, who owned the team from 2003-11, said in February. "I don't want to have second thoughts about it. It bothers me that people have negative feelings about the way we handled it, but I thought we handled it as best we could under the circumstances."
The Sabres never recovered. Their nine-year postseason drought is the longest in the National Hockey League and they have not won a playoff series since the two stars departed. But what would have happened had Drury and Briere signed contracts with Buffalo that summer?
History shows it's not the pie-in-the-sky scenario some would lead you to believe. Briere reportedly would have accepted a five-year, $25 million offer if it was presented before or during the season and, in the fall of 2006, Drury agreed to terms with the Sabres on a four-year, $21.5 million offer. The combined average annual value: $10.375 million, a considerable discount to retain the heart and soul of a team that had just won the Presidents' Trophy.
However, the Sabres stuck to their policy of not negotiating contracts during the season. Drury was never given a contract to sign after agreeing to terms and Briere did not receive an offer until two days before free agency opened.
“I thought I was going to be a Sabre for the rest of my career, honestly, even after the season,” said Briere during the team's 2000s night in KeyBank Center this season. “Things happen … and I’m not trying to throw anybody under the bus. It’s done. We can’t change anything about it.”
Drury was arguably the Sabres' best all-around player, a two-way force who killed penalties and took key faceoffs while recording career highs in goals (37) and points (69) in 2006-07. He had 31 points in Buffalo's march to consecutive conference finals.
Briere, meanwhile, led the Sabres in regular-season and playoff points in 2006-07 with 95 and 15, respectively. He scored 92 regular-season goals during his four years in Buffalo. The two players also accounted for 35 percent of the team's game-winning goals during three postseasons, and their impact off the ice could not be measured.
"I remember Chris being a little more quiet, more on the personal side," said Martin Biron, an MSG analyst and retired NHL goaltender who was traded by the Sabres to Philadelphia in February 2007. "Danny was a ball of fire. Danny, you could see him face the locker room. You could see him angry and happy and ecstatic and (upset) in his stall. He wore it right on his sleeves. They were very different, but when you got on the ice, they were both non-stop."
Sabres ownership thought it had the talent to replace Briere and Drury. Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy, all of whom were 23 years or younger, accounted for 98 of the Sabres' league-leading 308 goals in 2006-07. Following the free-agent departures, Buffalo made a significant financial commitment to Vanek by matching Edmonton's seven-year, $50 million offer sheet. Maxim Afinogenov, Jochen Hecht and Ales Kotalik also were returning.
Management failed to consider how much the departures impacted the Sabres' depth. The Sabres remained competitive, including a division title in 2009-10, but the franchise reached the playoffs only twice, both first-round exits, after Briere and Drury departed.
No one was able to fill the leadership void, either.
"We had a younger team," Pominville said. "A lot of those guys, it was our third year in the league. ... We definitely had the skill. We were able to win games and do well. Our goaltending was excellent. But you need to have some of those veterans for their presence in the room and what they bring on a day-to-day basis. Losing those two was huge on the room, but it gave opportunities for other guys to step in and have bigger leadership roles."
The Sabres could have remained under the $50.3 million salary cap ceiling by signing Briere and Drury to the offers they reportedly desired. Future cap projections suggest the team could have kept both without sacrificing Pominville or Ryan Miller later. It's possible the right roster decisions would have allowed Buffalo to also keep defenseman Brian Campbell, who was traded to San Jose in February 2008.
But ownership never intended to spend to the cap ceiling. Briere had 26 or more regular-season goals in four of his six years in Philadelphia and helped the Flyers to five consecutive playoff appearances, recording a league-best 30 points during a run to the Stanley Cup final in 2010.
Drury had 47 goals over his first two seasons in New York but injuries forced him to retire in August 2011.
Retaining one, or both, also could have impacted the Sabres' future financial decisions. It's unlikely the Sabres would have signed Ville Leino to a six-year, $27 million contract in 2011, and it's fair to wonder if Leino would have earned a big pay day without playing alongside Briere in Philadelphia.
More playoff runs with Briere and/or Drury could have saved the jobs of former coach Lindy Ruff and former General Manager Darcy Regier. It's also unlikely the Sabres would have ever tanked to draft either Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid.
There likely wouldn't have been lucrative free-agent contracts for Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo. Ehrhoff and Leino later had their contracts bought out. There would be no reason to trade Miller or Pominville, who returned in June 2017 after being dealt to Minnesota in April 2013.
Briere and Drury leaving began a series of bad business decisions that eventually created a losing culture that festered for years. It's conceivable the Sabres would have remained one of the top teams in the NHL for multiple seasons, though Regier's failures in the draft would have created a lack of depth.
Even Briere couldn't believe the Sabres haven't made the playoffs since 2011. But while he and Drury are having successful post-playing careers, the shadow of a long postseason drought is still cast over a fan base that has never recovered from the tumultuous summer of 2007.
"No team can survive a long run after losing their top two guys," Pominville said. "It was definitely a tough blow for everyone. We thought it was only the beginning where we could keep the team together, keep building and try to find a way to compete every year for a Cup. I guess salary cap and all those type of things came into play. Things changed and they changed pretty quick."