ADVERTISEMENT

While Chris Drury was smiling across the state, Darcy Regier was struggling to keep his composure. The Buffalo Sabres' general manager lost his on-ice leaders Sunday, and he must have realized Monday his team was losing its grip on what had been a frenzied fan base.

The departure of Drury and fellow co-captain Daniel Briere via free agency has created a mixture of anger, confusion and resignation throughout Sabreland. Questions persist area-wide about how the Sabres will contend without their offensive powerhouses. Inquiries about fan reaction repeatedly filtered into the team's news conference in HSBC Arena, with Regier and managing partner Larry Quinn trying to explain the losses and soothe the anxiety.

Regier's brave front finally faded after 13 minutes of questioning. It was wondered if the team that has advanced to the past two Eastern Conference finals can continue to be as competitive.

The GM admitted what most people are thinking: It can't.

"We're going to be less competitive without Danny Briere and Chris Drury," said Regier, who paused before continuing in a voice filled with emotion with a face that conveyed anguish. "But the sky's not falling. This is a good hockey club. We'll be good. We'll figure out a way -- somehow, some way -- to be better. But people shouldn't give up on these young men. They shouldn't give up on the coaching staff. They shouldn't give up on the community. The sky's not falling."

The Sabres' executives lamented the loss of Briere and Drury, but they insisted signing both at their current market price would have hurt the franchise's long-term future. Briere signed with Philadelphia for $52 million over eight years. Drury went to the New York Rangers for five years and $35.25 million.

The Sabres said that level of commitment would prohibit them from keeping a well-balanced team (Buffalo, however, could have had both captains at significantly reduced contracts well before this week). The team prefers a payroll with medium-salaried players rather than one with a few astronomical numbers and a bunch of entry-level prices.

"The decisions . . . none of them are in a vacuum," Regier said. "They play off all of our younger players and the future of our younger players. In some cases, we're much better off doing things on a long-term basis, taking whatever hit we're going to take to the organization right now for the future.

"Even if we can afford them on the short term, we can't afford to lock out younger players to keep older players here."

That doesn't make the losses, particularly Drury, any easier for fans to deal with. Regier said he realized early this year the team would not be able to retain Briere. The attention heaped on the Sabres' leading scorer was certain to put his price tag out of reach.

"We knew that Danny was out of the mix," Regier said.

So the Sabres focused on Drury. But he had turned his attention elsewhere after being repeatedly forced to wait -- first on an agreed-upon contract that never came to fruition, then by the Sabres' policy of not negotiating during the season.

"We wanted the player to return," Quinn said. "We felt very strongly about it. We're not very happy about it."

Drury said Monday his decision to leave created mixed emotions. The Rangers were his favorite team while growing up in nearby Trumbull, Conn. But he had come to adore Buffalo.

"It was a tough call to make," Drury said by phone from New York. "I genuinely liked Buffalo. I loved playing for [coach] Lindy [Ruff]. I had a great relationship with Darcy, [owner] Tom [Golisano] and Larry, right on down through the line.

"When it got so close to free agency, the potential to maybe see what the Rangers wanted and if they were interested -- come noon Eastern [Sunday] when they were -- I knew that it was somewhere that I wanted to go and to kind of fulfill a lifelong dream."

The Sabres must now find replacements. Regier said they have had discussions with free agents, though none have signed. The Sabres also have other things on their mind:

*Retaining their other star forward, Thomas Vanek.

"He's a restricted free agent, we have his rights, and we're not going to let them go," Quinn said.

*Continuing to learn in a marketplace that has changed drastically since the lockout ended in 2005 and a new collective bargaining agreement was established.

"When we came out of the lockout, $3 million deals for three years was the norm, totaling $9 million," Regier said. "What has happened and transpired in the last three years is we now have a marketplace that has arguably outdistanced the pre-lockout marketplace. . . . The total number is not about $7 million or $6 million; it's about $10 million versus $50 million. And it's going to be a challenge to organizations around the National Hockey League.

"We can sit around and say we should have done things differently, could have done things differently, but we are where we are. We're in a marketplace that has really taken off."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com