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Buffalo Sabres fans were dreading Sunday, knowing it would likely be the day their beloved franchise changed for the worse.

They were right.

Co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left the Sabres on Sunday as free agency opened in the National Hockey League. Briere was gone by midafternoon, signing an eight-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers worth $52 million. Drury completed the leadership exodus shortly before 8 p.m., agreeing to a five-year, $35.25 million contract with the New York Rangers.

The Sabres' attempts at retaining the players last week were minuscule by comparison. The team made a five-year, $25 million offer to Briere and a five-year, $30 million offer to Drury. The fact the Sabres waited six weeks after the season ended to make their offers was a factor in Briere leaving.

"Tell the fans that I was sincere when I said I wanted to stay in Buffalo," Briere told The News. "That was my priority when the season was over, but at the same time, with any job or anything you do in life, with any employer, you want to feel wanted.

"What I feel bad about is losing my teammates, losing my coaching staff, and I feel bad being on another team now after spending some great years playing for those fans in Buffalo."

The Sabres advanced to the past two Eastern Conference finals with the co-captains, who accounted for 35 percent of the team's game-winning goals in the playoffs. More than two dozen players signed new contracts Sunday, but Buffalo acquired none.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com