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The Buffalo Sabres reached the conference finals in back-to-back years after the 2004-05 lockout, so it's easy to say they were Stanley Cup contenders twice in the last four seasons. People often draw different conclusions based on standards.

Take the Red Wings, who won 11 division titles and four Cups in the last 14 seasons. You could view them as a dominant franchise or one that failed to reach its goal of winning it all 10 times in that span.

Sabres minority owner Larry Quinn has repeatedly made it clear that the franchise's goal is winning the Cup. That is a bold but refreshing approach for a region that learned how to settle for less. Say what you will about Quinn, but he's a Buffalo guy who wants to win.

Sounds great, but how? And when?

The Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins confirmed the Sabres are a long way from contending for the Cup. My goal this year as GM for a Day is to get the Sabres on the right road so they can grow into a top four team in the conference in the next two years. Making the playoffs next season would be terrific, but the goal is to win the Cup someday.

I start by making sure everyone adheres to specific roles, which for years has been the Wings' approach from the owner to the parking attendants. Here, it means Quinn oversees business operations and establishes a budget before getting out of the way.

Fans squawk about Tom Golisano being an absentee owner, but my only problem with him living in Florida during the season is that he's not in Cuba. He can no longer meddle in hockey decisions. That led to them becoming the first team to reach the conference finals two straight seasons and miss the playoffs the next two.

If I'm going to be the general manager, I'm calling the shots on personnel. Darcy Regier is a qualified general manager but his biggest flaw is allowing ownership to interfere with his decisions rather than take a stand.

You listening, Mike Harrington, aka Quinn for a Day? Give me the budget and let me do my job. I'll leave the roster to John Vogl (Lindy Ruff).

The draft is four days from today but I'm only concerned with trades and free agents, not in prospects who may be five or six years away from contributing. So, I want to make July 1 my day as GM.

The first move I make is getting help -- for me. The Sabres' scouting staff has been stripped in recent years, leaving the hockey department with fewer hockey minds. I want an assistant GM, an intelligent scout who will challenge me before I make the final call.

Rick Dudley would have been perfect, but he's headed for Atlanta. Les Jackson is a sound personnel man who was fired in Dallas after being forced to share the GM job with Brett Hull. Mark Howe is the top pro scout in Detroit. Terry Martin is working in Colorado but still lives in Buffalo after inexplicably getting whacked by the Sabres. Edmonton's Mike Abbamont isn't well known but he's widely respected for his encyclopedic knowledge of the NHL and AHL.

Don't worry about me feeling threatened by the possibility of anyone stealing my job. I'm putting the team first. And, remember, I'm only a GM for a day.

Once we upgrade the hockey department, we turn to the roster. Nobody should feel comfortable on a team that has missed the playoffs five times in seven years. The salary cap is expected to be roughly the same as it was last season, $56.7 million. The Sabres spent nearly $53 million on payroll. Their cap figure was $50.6 million. I'll stay somewhere in between. Currently, the Sabres have about $46.5 million locked into payroll for 20 players for next season and there are several restricted free agents to be re-signed, so cuts are necessary.

The Sabres' restricted free agents are Patrick Kaleta, Drew Stafford, Mark Mancari, Clarke MacArthur and Andrej Sekera. Players eligible for unrestricted free agency are Max Afinogenov, Matt Ellis, Dominic Moore, Andrew Peters, Teppo Numminen and Jaroslav Spacek.

It's time to play the kids, which means getting winger Nathan Gerbe and South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy up from Portland. Gerbe was named Rookie of the Year in the American Hockey League, but Kennedy is more equipped for the NHL because he's a better two-way forward. They had good chemistry last season and are prepared to take the next step.

They will replace Jochen Hecht and Maxim Afinogenov, who combined for 18 goals and 47 points last season while stealing a combined $7.3 million from Buffalo. Gerbe and Kennedy will feel like a steal at a combined $1.485 million next season.

In addition to Afinogenov and Hecht, Numminen, Peters, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman are gone. All are either dead weight or will become unrestricted free agents in the next 13 months. They're expendable for a team that's two or three years away.

Plus, I need to make room for Jay Bouwmeester, the premier defenseman in the free-agent market. He's a difference-maker the Sabres have needed and an upgrade over since-departed Brian Campbell. He would immediately stabilize the blue line, help tutor promising rookie Tyler Myers.

Bouwmeester had 15 goals and 42 points last season, scoring nine times on the PP, after a terrible start. He's only 25. Plus, the 6-foot-4, 212-pounder averaged 27 minutes per game last season to lead the league. He and Myers would join Rivet, Weber, Chris Butler, Sekera and Nathan Paetsch on the blue line.

Spacek wants to return, but re-signing him is embracing status quo. Plus, at the $3.3 million he made last year, he's way too expensive.

The price for Bouwmeester will be somewhere in the $7 million range per season. He wants to play for a contender, preferably in the Western Conference. It makes Buffalo a tough sell. Twelve of the 16 playoff teams were within $2 million of the cap, so his choices appear limited. The Oilers could make a strong pitch for the Edmonton native. Toronto is another team that could get involved.

Would an aggressive approach and seven-year deal for $50 million be enough to convince him? It's time to find out.

Signing Bouwmeester means payroll must be trimmed elsewhere. Tallinder and Lydman will pocket a combined $6.35 million in 2009-10 before becoming unrestricted free agents. I would trade (OK, give) both away -- knowing darned well I'll get clobbered in the trade market. It's better than losing them next July.

Ultimately, it would improve the blue line for several years with one of the NHL's best defensemen in Bouwmeester and the possibility of another in Myers.

That's how teams win the Cup.

Hecht would be more difficult to trade given the three years and $10.3 million remaining on his contract. If there aren't any takers for Hecht, there would be suitors for Tim Connolly or Derek Roy. Either would bring back more long-term help than Hecht while cutting costs.

If I can't land Bouwmeester, there are options that would allow me to improve the blue line and leave money to spend elsewhere. Good players should be available in the trade market with so many teams bumped against the cap. The Sabres could use another center and more offense off the wing. The team was 17th in scoring but the current group would generate more offense with a puck-moving defenseman.

Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek, 27, wouldn't supply much offense, but the 6-4, 245-pound bruiser would help. Anaheim's Francois Beauchemin, New Jersey's Johnny Oduya and Pittsburgh's Rob Scuderi are good players on the lower end.

Defenseman Sekera must be signed. He made $659,000 last season but has little leverage. A three-year deal starting at $1.1 million and escalating seems fair.

The more money spent along the blue line, the less available for forwards. Stafford is the biggest question mark. Will another team offer him a deal and force the Sabres to match it or accept four or five first-round draft picks in return? That scenario appears unlikely given the disaster in Edmonton after the Oilers overpaid Anaheim's Dustin Penner two years ago.

Stafford made $984,000 last season and will have arbitration rights after next year. He scored 20 goals and 45 points last season. He has the potential to net 30 goals, but there's no ignoring long stretches last year in which he disappeared. A three- or four-year deal starting at $2 million for next season is well within reason.

MacArthur had 17 goals and 31 points last year, including five goals in the final eight games. He had one goal between Jan. 1 and March 7. He also was shut out from Nov. 8 to Dec. 17. He made $522,000 last season. A deal starting at $1.1 million is plenty fair.

Kaleta is another RFA with limited leverage. He pocketed $500,000, but he's not going to command more than $750,000 when Adam Mair is making $775,000. RFA Mancari should expect $574,000, his current NHL deal, plus the mandatory minimum 10 percent raise, for a chance to make the team.

All told, my payroll is $51.358 million, including the game-changing defenseman the Sabres need most.

OK, my team isn't winning the Cup this year, but at least we're on the right road. To me, that's a victory.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com