BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Cutting off his boss in mid-sentence, general manager Darcy Regier bluntly explained the challenge the Buffalo Sabres face after losing their two co-captains.
"We're going to be less competitive without Danny Briere and Chris Drury," Regier said, interrupting Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn during a news conference Monday. "But we'll figure out a way somehow to be better.
"People shouldn't give up on these young men. They shouldn't give up on the coaching staff," Regier added, his voice rising with emotion. "The sky's not falling."
It just seems that way in Buffalo.
When NHL free agency opened Sunday, Briere signed a $52-million, eight-year contract with Philadelphia, and Drury signed a $35.25-million, five-year deal with the New York Rangers. Losing both players signalled the end of Buffalo's two-year run as the Eastern Conference's most competitive team, a stretch in which the Sabres won an NHL-best 105 games and were eliminated in the conference final both times.
The departures of Drury and Briere enraged a loyal fan base, which flooded sports talk shows and filled Sabres-related blogs in criticizing and questioning why the team failed to make a more considerable effort to retain one or both.
"Sorry," Regier said. "We're disappointed, too."
During a 30-minute news conference, he and Quinn outlined their efforts to keep the Sabres' top two centres, who combined for 123 goals over the past two years.
They acknowledged the Sabres could have been more proactive in attempting to re-sign both a year ago and didn't foresee Briere handcuffing their payroll when he received a one-year, $5-million contract in arbitration last summer. As free agency approached, Quinn and Regier said signing Drury became the team's top priority because of his leadership skills and because it would be too expensive to sign both.
Quinn revealed the Sabres approached Drury regarding a new deal as early as September and said Buffalo was prepared to match any contract the player signed, including the one he got from New York.
"The plan yesterday was to bring Chris Drury back," Quinn said. "He's a very hard player to replace. And you just don't go up on the shelf and buy another one."
What the Sabres couldn't match, Quinn said, was Drury's desire to play for the Rangers and in a city close to his hometown of Trumbull, Conn.
"I have a lot of emotion," Quinn said, of losing Drury. "We wanted the player to return. We felt very strongly about it. We're not happy about it."
Regier said re-signing Briere became secondary when it became apparent he would command a hefty contract in free agency. That's why the team didn't make him an offer until last week.
"If you had a crystal ball, yeah, sure you'd like to go back and do some things differently," Regier said. "But we are where we are."
The Sabres are not bereft of talent, returning a young group of players, led by goalie Ryan Miller and forwards Maxim Afinogenov and Thomas Vanek, who scored a team-leading 43 goals last season.
The next priority is signing Vanek to a long-term deal. As a Group 2 free agent, Vanek is open to receiving offers from other teams, which the Sabres are allowed to match.
"We have his rights, and we're not going to let him go," Quinn said. "I can't be more clear than that."
He stressed the Sabres aren't in a rebuilding mode and are planning for a $40-plus million payroll, short of $50.3 million salary cap.
"This is not a team that's cheapening out. It's just that we lost two very good players," Quinn said. "I think that's too bad, and I think we probably failed somewhere."