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By David Staba

At least it was quick.

Barely eight hours after the National Hockey League's free-agent shopping season began at noon on Sunday, the two players who led the Buffalo Sabres to the sport's upper echelon left town for good.

Well, not really. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury will make several appearances at HSBC Arena during each of the next few seasons. It's just that the two former co-captains will be wearing the modernized uniforms of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, respectively.

Yes, that's a little bit of vomit you probably taste right now.

Whether or not the Sabres could have kept at least one of the highly valued pivots -- to use one of those chic Canadian terms -- will be debated for the rest of the summer. And a whole lot longer if Buffalo falls from the ranks of the NHL's elite.

This much, though, is certain: They certainly didn't try.

Philadelphia's offer to Briere was too good for anyone to refuse and, in keeping with the Flyers' proud tradition of wild overspending, too good, period.

Briere scores goals and sets them up, doing both with a flair that sells plenty of tickets. Each of Buffalo's three playoff opponents were able to make him disappear for long stretches, but he still led the Sabres with 15 postseason points. As if to answer those who considered Drury far and away the more clutch of the two, he matched his co-captain's late-game heroics against the Rangers in the second round by netting a tying goal with 5.8 seconds left in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Ottawa.

But $52 million over eight years? Seriously?

Briere turns 30 in October, around the time he starts his first season in Philadelphia. Smallish, skillful centers rarely age well and it shouldn't shock anyone, with the possible exception of the Flyers' executive wing, if his time as an All-Star isn't a fading memory before the contract is half expired.

Drury, though, is something else entirely. Yes, he's a year older than Briere and also stands 5 feet, 10 inches tall. But he weighs nearly 25 pounds more and plays even bigger at the defensive end.

Drury's deal -- $35.25 million over five years -- also is a lot more sensible and much closer to what the Sabres offered before free agency began.

Offering Briere a five-year deal, but offering him no raise after posting a team-high 95 points and helping lead Buffalo to within one series of the Stanley Cup Finals for a second straight year was Darcy Regier's way of telling No. 48 to take a hike. Sort of like when he rewarded Ted Nolan for earning Coach of the Year honors by throwing a one-year contract in his face a decade ago.

Buffalo's pre-deadline bid for Drury, though, was only $1 million per season less than what he got from New York. Rampant speculation that the 37-goal scorer (nine of them of the game-winning variety) was California-bound in order to please Mrs. Drury turned out to be as wrong as geographically possible.

The Rangers signed Scott Gomez shortly before landing Drury on Sunday, leading to theorizing that the franchise showed the latter the necessary commitment. Buffalo might have done the same by sweetening the initial offer and using the money freed up by letting the Flyers overpay for Briere to land the sort of physical, two-way guy they haven't had enough of during the last two postseasons.

But no.

Drury takes a lot more than goals and grit with him to Manhattan. He also provided the rest of the Sabres with an up-close-and-personal role model, an example of how the game is supposed to be played. At least according to the chemistry-first mantra espoused by Lindy Ruff.

As he did with Michael Peca, though, Regier showed the rest of that locker room what happens when the time comes to pay the bill for that leadership and work ethic. He lets someone else pick up the tab.

Letting a guy whose last act as a Sabre was taking a slap shot in the mouth simply walk away has to send a message to the rest of the roster.Maybe Regier will use the money to lock up Thomas Vanek and add some free-agent beef to the lineup. You can't accurately call owner Tom Golisano cheap after the team spent up to the salary cap last season, but it will be at least a year before we know if Regier used his money wisely.

Buffalo's renaissance following the lockout rightfully earned Regier and Ruff accolades throughout hockey. Reputations can change in a hurry, though. So can ticket-sale trends.

Sunday's purge was quick, yes. But painless? Too late for that.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 3 2007