The Buffalo Sabres lost them both.
Black Sunday will go down as one of the most demoralizing days in franchise history. Gone in the span of about five hours were co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. The popular centers signed contracts to play elsewhere, leaving the Sabres with a vestige of their very soul.
Briere accepted a whopping eight-year, $52 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers about three hours after the free agency period opened at noon. Drury pondered a little longer, waiting until about 7:30 p.m. before agreeing to a five-year, $35.25 million deal to play for the New York Rangers.
"Looking at it from Buffalo's perspective, I'm sure they're not very happy [Briere and Drury] have left," Rangers General Manager Glen Sather said. "But that's the nature of the beast.
"We have to operate within the rules of the league and to the best of our abilities. I've seen players leave my teams before, and it's a complicated and tricky time. You just have to face the facts you can't always keep everyone."
The Sabres declined to comment. GM Darcy Regier was expected to meet with reporters today.
"I know it's been a difficult day for Darcy," Sather said.
Not to mention Sabres fans.
The Sabres apparently weren't even in the running to re-sign their co-captains.
After the duo strongly considered the enticing possibility of staying together to join the Los Angeles Kings, Briere narrowed his choices to the Flyers and Montreal Canadiens, who were offering a higher average salary but two fewer years.
Briere didn't give the Sabres a chance to match the Flyers' offer. Briere revealed that his agent, Pat Brisson, hadn't spoken to Regier since rejecting a five-year, $25 million proposal Thursday.
Briere waited nearly six weeks for that initial offer, which was for the same salary he made last season while leading the Presidents' Trophy winners with 95 points and earning All-Star MVP honors.
"Their decision was clear," Briere said. "They were ready to move on, and you know what? I accepted that fact probably about seven to 10 days ago.
"They had time. If they were interested in my services they would have come back in a couple weeks after the season at the latest. All the other teams do that. But when it got to three weeks I thought, 'Maybe they have other things to do.' Four weeks? Five weeks? Six weeks? Then I knew they weren't interested.
"One day I woke up and there was something that just told me, 'You can hope as much as you want that you're coming back to Buffalo, but I guess it's just not in the cards.' I had to start trying to get over the fact I wasn't going to be in Buffalo anymore. Once you realize it just wasn't going to happen in Buffalo, you just have to tell yourself it's OK."
Teams on Jan. 1 were allowed to begin renegotiations with players on one-year deals, but the Sabres followed their recent practice of not discussing contracts in season. Had they extended their five-year, $25 million offer then, a source close to Briere said he would have taken it.
On the day the Sabres cleaned out their lockers, Briere said he would take less money from the Sabres to remain with the team. That hometown discount opportunity evaporated, however, when the Sabres took nearly six weeks to extend their initial offer to him.
"Tell the fans that I was sincere when I said I wanted to stay in Buffalo," Briere said. "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.
"I'm really sad to be leaving the Buffalo Sabres organization and to leave the city, but it will always be a big part of my heart."
The Flyers finished with a league-low 22 wins. They went into Sunday with $9.6 million of salary cap money to spend and cleared even more room later in the day by sending defenseman Joni Pitkanen, former Sabres forward Geoff Sanderson and their 2008 third-round draft pick to the Edmonton Oilers for captain Jason Smith and forward Joffrey Lupul.
Briere's signing, however, was the highlight of the Flyers' offseason.
"I think Danny is one of the most exciting players in the game," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said. "He has creativity, he can score, he is competitive and he can skate. I think that he is a perfect fit for our team and, quite frankly, I think that he would be a perfect fit for a lot teams."
Briere said former Sabres goalie Martin Biron, dealt to Philly for the 31st pick in last month's draft, was instrumental in the process.
"I like the fact that they're doing everything possible to try and win," Briere said. "They finished last, but then you look at all the changes they've been trying to make and to adapt to the new NHL. And at the [Feb. 27] trade deadline, they knew they weren't going to make the playoffs and traded for great prospects, great young players that will be a part of the NHL for a long time.
"My feeling is that this team is on the upswing. I like the organization."
It was uncertain if Drury called the Sabres. They offered him a five-year, $30 million contract, not a significant enough difference to make Drury's decision a no-brainer on strictly financial grounds. The Sabres could have competed with the Rangers' offer, especially with Briere already out the door.
Drury reportedly considered the Kings, San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, with whom he won a Stanley Cup, before deciding on the Rangers at the same time they landed coveted forward Scott Gomez.
"We had them ranked the first picks as far as free agents were concerned," Sather said. "We really didn't think we were going to get both of them, but it just worked out that way. The times I've been around you don't get the opportunity to sign two players like this."
Drury is a two-way force. He finished second on the Sabres last season with 37 goals. He led them with 17 power-play goals, three short-handed goals and a career-high nine winners.
"He's been a winner every place he's been, a hard-working guy," Sather said. "He's been productive on every team he's been on, and a winner in every game he's ever played in. He brings the determination and spunk we need."e-mail: email@example.com