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Buffalo Sabres brace for potential big hits in NHL free agency

Landing the most lucrative contract does not necessarily guarantee anyone playing for a winner, the Sabres managing partner said Saturday.

"I think you have to ask yourself, 'Do you want to win?' Free agents who went for all the money last year didn't win, with one exception, Scott Niedermayer," Quinn said, referring to the Ducks captain who won a Stanley Cup in his first season with Anaheim. "There's a lot of situations where it didn't help the player in a competitive situation, because it affects the team's ability to have players around him."

It's a philosophy the Sabres are sticking to, unwilling to upset their payroll structure with top-heavy salaries. And it's a key reason the team that won a league-leading and franchise-record 53 games last season finds itself bracing to lose its two top leaders once free agency opens Sunday.

Briere, who travelled to L.A. this week to be with his agent, has already announced he'll test the market. Drury, who makes his off-season home in Southern California, is prepared to follow. He and the Sabres have declined to discuss the status of negotiations.

Briere and Drury head a small group of top-tier players eligible for free agency this summer, and both centres are projected to command better than $6 million-a-year contract offers.

The top group of unsigned players is rounded out by centre Scott Gomez and defenceman Brian Rafalski of New Jersey and New York Islanders forwards Ryan Smyth and Jason Blake. Only Rafalski is considered likely to re-sign with his current team.

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said he's gotten the sense that there will be a flurry of activity Sunday.

"I think it's going to be crazy," he said Saturday night.

Briere's decision to test free agency is not a surprise, with the NHL's salary cap rising from US$44 million last season to $50.3 million. And there are numerous teams - including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Toronto and the New York Rangers - with room to make big offers and eager to improve their lineups.

Briere, who scored a career-high 95 points, is the only player available who finished among the NHL's top 10 scorers last season. Drury, Blake and Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, who is contemplating retirement, are the only players eligible for free agency who scored 37 or more goals.

Next in line is a group that could include Montreal defenceman Sheldon Souray, Rangers centre Michael Nylander and Nashville forwards Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg.

The Flyers already raised both eyebrows and the market price for free agents when they acquired defenceman Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell in a trade with Nashville two weeks ago. Philadelphia then signed both to six-year deals: Timonen's worth $37.8 million and Hartnell's $25.2 million.

Blake's agent, Neil Sheehy, is eager for free agency to open because his client is coming off a career-high season. And he noted how speedy, undersized forwards are in demand under the new offence-friendly rules.

"I don't have any time frame on how quickly he signs, but I'm sure he'll be signing within the next few days," Sheehy said. "Players just haven't had the opportunity to become free agents. And I think, when you have that chance, you have to look at the market and see what's out there."

The Sabres have the most to lose in free agency. Forward Dainius Zubrus also will test free agency, and Buffalo must contend with re-signing Thomas Vanek, who scored a team-leading 43 goals last season.

Vanek is a restricted free agent whose rights were retained by Buffalo two weeks ago. Vanek, however, can receive offers from other teams that the Sabres would have the right to match.

Although it has been rare for teams to make offers to Group 2 free agents such as Vanek and Ottawa goalie Ray Emery, the environment might be changing. The new collective bargaining agreement lessened the number of draft picks teams would have to give up, and the salary cap could handcuff teams at or near the limit to match offers.

Vanek's agent, Stephen Bartlett, said he's received numerous calls from teams potentially interested in his client.

"I certainly have more anticipation that this could be the summer," Bartlett said. "Considering and signing the offer are two different things, but it's something that's being bantered about more than at any other time that I can remember."


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