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A few weeks ago, I wrote a column suggesting the Buffalo Sabres should find a way to keep Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. After all, Anaheim Ducks General Manager Brian Burke was able to acquire high-priced defensemen Chris Pronger to go with Scott Niedermayer en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

Burke was masterful in massaging the $44 million salary cap and building a tough, talented team that was clearly the best at season's end. It took some bold, unpopular decisions along the way for him to spend 30 percent of his payroll on two players. Burke could have looked foolish had the Ducks been bounced early in the playoffs.

Of course, it didn't take long before a certain segment of the populace, aka bosses, challenged me to figure out a formula that would enable the Sabres to keep their two co-captains, who are set to become unrestricted free agents July 1. Yes, they asked me to be general manager for a day.

Any chance I could get paid like one?

My goal is to keep the Sabres competitive, keep the two stars on the roster without gutting the core of the team and keep the payroll to $44 million, which is about what the Sabres spent last season while turning a profit. It's well below next season's projected salary cap, between $48 million and $52 million.

Granted, it's a little intimidating. I almost sympathized with Sabres GM Darcy Regier, who has the unenviable task of adhering to his budget while building a contender. But let's be honest, my job isn't on the line here. It should be no more daunting than hitting a par-3 over water on a video game.

My biggest beef with Regier for years has been his refusal to lock up his players at bargain prices before they sign elsewhere for more money. He'll say players ultimately decide whether to stay or leave, and he's right. But usually they hit the road because they felt like they had no choice, as Jay McKee did last year.

Drury and Briere aren't looking for monster contracts as much as fair value and a chance to play for a Stanley Cup contender. Neither is comfortable signing for big money if it means the other one is forced to leave because that makes the Sabres weaker. They'll take a hometown discount, but they aren't coming cheap.

>Lock up top trio

To me, keeping them actually starts with Thomas Vanek, the 23-year-old winger who scored 43 goals last season. He's a restricted free agent, meaning the Sabres would need to match outside offers to retain him. It's difficult to measure where he fits in a fluid market, especially because a handful of GMs lose their marbles at this time of year.

So let's not give them a chance and risk losing, gulp, all three.

Vanek made $942,000 in the final year of his rookie contract. He's a gifted scorer with defensive deficiencies, still growing and on the verge of greatness. He doesn't have arbitration rights, which gives the Sabres some leverage now but could bury them if he gets to the bargaining table in two years.

Based on sources within the industry, a four-year deal worth $15 million would be ideal for Vanek and the Sabres. It would begin at $3 million with $500,000 per year increases throughout the course of the contract. It might mean overpaying Vanek now, but he would be a bargain in 2010-11 if they can stave off arbitration for a couple of years.

Carolina center Eric Staal was in a similar position last summer and signed a three-year deal worth $13.5 million. Vanek has 68 goals and 132 points the past two NHL seasons. Columbus winger Rick Nash, with 58 goals and 111 points over the same span on a worse team, signed a five-year deal for $27 million. The Blue Jackets overpaid for him.

Sabres owner Tom Golisano saved the franchise, certainly, but he also made an investment when pulling the Sabres out of bankruptcy. Their value has more than doubled since the lockout. Good for Buffalo, terrific for him. But it doesn't mean he should simply empty the vault, either.

There are spending limits for all players, including Drury and Briere. Drury is more valuable for this team because he's solid on both ends and has all the intangibles. He scored 37 goals last season and was the team's top penalty-killing forward. Briere is the first to admit Drury taught him how to win. Drury leads by example.

For all the grief Briere took after the playoffs, he led Buffalo with 15 postseason points. He also led the Sabres in playoff scoring the previous year. He led the team with 95 points during the regular season. He had 58 points in 48 games in 2005-06, which put him on pace for a team-leading 99 points.

Drury could get $7 million a year in the open market, but I wouldn't go that high. A five-year deal for $33 million sounds about right. Drury would get $6.75 million in each of the first three years of the deal, $6.5 million the fourth year and $6.25 million the final year. Not bad considering he made $3.154 million in 2006-07.

Briere would like a six-year deal. Sorry, five years for $29 million. That's a risk for a smaller player who will be 34 years old at the end of the contract. Briere would be paid $6 million for each of the first three years, $5.75 million for the fourth and $5.25 million for the final year. It's more than former MVP Martin St. Louis is making in Tampa.

The deals would be front-loaded because that's when both players, based on their ages, should be most effective. Less money at the end makes them easier to trade. Not good enough? Goodbye. The Sabres could overpay someone else, such as Islanders winger Ryan Smyth, another gamer about to hit the market for similar money.

Sounds easy, huh? It's not.

Do the math, and that means three players would receive $15.75 million next season. It's 36 percent of my payroll, which is high, but Niedermayer ($6.75 million), Pronger ($6.25 million) and Andy McDonald ($3.33 million) accounted for more in Anaheim. As Burke said, it makes sense when it's the right players. Drury, Briere and Vanek are the right players.

>Moving Max saves cash

When you add up the aforementioned Sabres and my new deals for them -- you're welcome, gentlemen -- plus the players already under contract while factoring in raises, a $44 million payroll gets blown to bits. Don't worry. The Sabres need to trim certain players to add toughness, which is cheaper. But this is where it gets uncomfortable.

Burke traded a 28-goal, 53-point scorer in Joffrey Lupul, a promising defenseman in Ladislav Smid, plus first- and second-round picks for Pronger. He also had to ship proven defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski to Atlanta. Burke paid a ton, but he has a clear conscience every time he sees his reflection in the Stanley Cup.

The Sabres can trim by shopping Maxim Afinogenov and Jaroslav Spacek and saying goodbye to Teppo Numminen and rental Dainius Zubrus. Afinogenov, Spacek and Numminen made $8.825 million combined last season. Afinogenov and Spacek are scheduled to cost the Sabres $6.975 million next season. It's too much for a team that was 16-7-3 without Afinogenov, 9-6-2 without Spacek and 7-4-1 without both.

My money's on Drew Stafford.

Buffalo also needs to account for restricted free agents Nathan Paetsch, Derek Roy, Daniel Paille and Andrew Peters. Peters will gladly accept his 10 percent raise. And this doesn't account for Clarke MacArthur and Patrick Kaleta, whose NHL salaries for next season are $1.125 million combined. The Sabres need a little more Kaleta and a little less Max, and they also need depth for the blue line.

It makes trading Afinogenov an easy decision. He's an electrifying player who sells tickets. He has 132 points over his past 133 games. He also has 10 goals and 23 points in 49 career playoff games. He was also a healthy scratch for a playoff game, for heaven's sake. It's not enough for a guy on the books for $3.5 million next season. Certainly, the Sabres can find a prospect, a defenseman or gritty third-line player for Afinogenov, accepting fully they're cutting costs and giving up enormous talent that . . . that disappears in the postseason.

Plus, you never know what can happen. The player coming back in the Afinogenov swap could lead to another deal that could include Ales Kotalik or Dmitri Kalinin, allowing me to trim payroll even more while keeping the core of my lineup intact. It's still a darned good team.

>Money left to spare

Anything for Spacek is better than nothing. He's a good guy and a team player, but signing him was a mistake. Finding a team for him could be difficult. Then again, Tampa Bay just acquired Chris Gratton for the third time. Spacek is set to make $3.475 million next season, a crime considering Paetsch made $495,000 last season and had one more point (22) in two fewer games (63).

Paetsch is a versatile player who can play defense and add grit and energy to the fourth line. I'm confident in re-signing him knowing he's not going to kill payroll. He made $495,000 last season, so a three-year deal worth $2.2 million ($600,000, $750,000, $850,000) is within reason.

Paetsch, a tough veteran for less than $1 million for the blue line and grooming rookie Andrej Sekera as a seventh defenseman should be enough to keep the Sabres in the playoff race going into the trade deadline next year. They could become active this summer if they move Kalinin ($2.25 million), who needs a change in scenery.

Dallas' Jon Klemm, Colorado's Ken Klee and Ottawa's Tom Preissing are among the free-agent defensemen who made less than $1 million last season. West Seneca native and former U.S. Olympian Aaron Miller is an unrestricted free agent who made $2.28 million last year with the Kings but is expected to make much less this year. The 34-year-old is tough, solid defensively, smart, a leader and he's very close friends with Drury. Former Sabres prospect Cory Sarich made $1.6 million last season. It would take a couple of aggressive moves to land him, but he would help solve several problems.

All told, keeping Drury and Briere and breaking ties with the four veterans, my Sabres' payroll would be $43.571 million. If you don't mind, I'll keep the change.

And pray nobody gets injured.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com