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Associated Press
7/24/2006 4:05:03 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Last year, the Buffalo Sabres were the model for how a small-market team can function in the NHL. With a payroll of just $29 million US, $10 million below the league-wide salary cap, the Sabres came within a game of reaching the Stanley Cup final.

That on-ice prosperity, however, has brought some off-ice financial pain this off-season, as the team continues to get stung by the high price of success. Buffalo's bottom line took another big hit Sunday after an arbitrator awarded co-captain Daniel Briere a one-year, $5-million contract. The Sabres can reject the award, but would risk losing the player who many feel has become the face of the franchise.

Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier was unavailable Monday to comment on the team's financial plight. Over the next 11 days, Regier and the Sabres will go to arbitration with seven more players, including last season's leading scorer Maxim Afinogenov.

Unless Regier can sign the Russian to a long-term deal, another hefty award could be in line. Afinogenov registered 73 points, far surpassing his previous career high of 40 points collected in 2001-02, while making just under $1.1 million.

Also scheduled for upcoming arbitration hearings will be forwards J.P. Dumont and Tim Connolly, as well as defenceman Toni Lydman. Those three key players combined to make nearly $4.6 million last season.

The Sabres have given big raises to defencemen Brian Campbell (two years, $3 million) and Henrik Tallinder (four years, $10.25 million), as well as forward Ales Kotalik (three years, $7 million). Buffalo also signed free-agent defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to a three-year, $10-million deal to help offset the loss of Jay McKee, who inked a four-year, $16-million contract with St. Louis.

Co-captain Chris Drury is already signed for $3.15 million, which means the trio of Briere, Drury and Spacek will gobble up 26 per cent of this year's salary cap of $44 million.

And all that doesn't even include star goaltender Ryan Miller, who remains unsigned. Miller refused arbitration in the hopes of securing a lucrative, long-term deal after making $501,600 as a rookie last season.

"We're not going to be up against it, but we're higher than we thought we would be," Regier said after signing Campbell. "The cost of doing business has gone up."
 

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In situations like this, I think that it's always best to sign the defencemen first. Good d-men are harder to aqcuire than good forwards IMO, and this year's flurry at the beginning of july showed it.

Or better yet, not getting into this situation at all in the first place would help a lot.
 
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