February 21, 2003.
Zigmund Palffy opens the scoring and puts the nail in the coffin with a third period shorthanded marker, the 11th such goal the Sabres have allowed already. As the center of recent trade suggestions, the Slovakian silences the discussions with his performance and gives the Kings further incentive to hold on to him.
But there is no quieting the anguish that exists for the Buffalo Sabres. Wins are scant, empty seats are visible in their home arena, Dominik Hasek’s withdrawal to Detroit remains a lingering problem, Martin Biron is overwhelmed by the increase in his goaltending workload and the allegations that team owner John Rigas committed fraud with his two sons casts a dark shadow over the club.
Bankruptcy declarations are uttered as a possibility while the National Hockey League controls the team. Everything is spiraling out of control in every way imaginable and the season cannot finish fast enough.
Tom Golisano’s purchasing of the organization in March helps a large mass of people, from supporters to players, breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Nine days prior to that refreshing announcement though, on the trade deadline, Darcy Regier did some house cleaning and disposed of two respected veterans, Stu Barnes and Rob Ray.
In the desert, or Phoenix if you prefer, a star was waiting to be discovered. That is where the Sabres set their sights for their next deal on deadline day and it is often regarded as one of the most lopsided of its decade.
Chris Gratton, who was second only to Miroslav Satan in terms of Buffalo’s offensive statistics up to then, was released with a fourth-round draft pick. Phoenix was searching for extra size up the middle to keep up with the other Western Conference clubs and their powerful centers.
Buffalo was dry on offense and the diminutive Daniel Briere was fetched, having begun to establish himself a year ago with a 32-goal surge.
He adapted smoothly and although he initially felt saddened by leaving his teammates in Phoenix behind, years later he labelled it as probably the best thing that occurred in his career. Not that they could know immediately, but the Sabres would be similarly pleased with the outcome.
Re-building the squad was in motion and in the Western Conference, Buffalo found another addition which was deemed substantial.
Chris Drury, already a Stanley Cup winner and the most outstanding rookie in 1999, was now competing in Western Canada with the Calgary Flames. With his achievements and proven leadership, the mark of any great athlete, he fit the profile of a player who could assist in the re-structuring in a large capacity.
In 2004, head coach Lindy Ruff saw his team return to respectability and finish ninth in the Eastern Conference, narrowly missing the postseason. Largely responsible for the upswing in fortunes, Briere and Drury couldn’t have envisioned the difference they would make in their Buffalo tenures.
The cancellation of the 2005 season was catastrophic, but the game was about to emphasize quickness and speed more than ever, with size being less valuable. Buffalo was one of the first squads to take immediate notice of this transformation and take full advantage of it.
Uniting speed and determination with an unbreakable concept of team work, the Sabres won 52 games and accumulated 110 points. A lot of individuals upped their play in 2006 and of course, Briere and Drury were included.
Buffalo’s postseason was indescribable, as the group got to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final and if injuries had not devastated them, surely they would have entered the finale. It was a sad ending to a terrific story, but the players and coaching staff had plenty to be proud of.
Aware of their newly-gained status as a legitimate contender, the Sabres were more dangerous in 2007. Winning ten in a row to start off and scoring goals left and right, it appeared to be an unstoppable force.
Just as the President’s Trophy indicated that Buffalo was the premier club in the regular season, Briere and Drury enjoyed their finest statistics as professionals. The former joined Ryan Miller and Brian Campbell as starters for the Eastern Conference’s All-Star side, claiming the MVP honors.
While Buffalo did get back into the final four of the playoffs, the magic from the previous year looked to have faded. No injuries hindered them as they did 12 months before, yet they were thoroughly outplayed and beaten by the Ottawa Senators.
How did it go so wrong?
It was flabbergasting, but the team was stronger than ever and would apparently get further chances to reach the coveted final.
July 1, 2007.
Free agency opens and seven-figure fees are flashing across television screens, highlighting who has moved and for how much. Day one deals two crushing blows to the Buffalo Sabres and their future.
Philadelphia signs Briere to an eight-year, $52 million contract and the news is met with shock by Buffalo’s fan base.
Adding further angst was Drury’s transfer to the New York Rangers, a deal worth $35.25 million for a span of five years. Seeing him pose in the blue sweater alongside Scott Gomez, the other center picked up by general manager Glen Sather, is when it really set in.
Two players who anchored something special in Buffalo had become foes and the outcry could be heard.
Similar to his efforts with the Sabres, Briere helped Philadelphia become relevant again, as the team was one year removed from a humiliating season. With their new and highly prized asset, they were Eastern Conference finalists in 2008.
In New York, Drury continued to enjoy the luxury of postseason hockey, but the Rangers were not progressing very far. Still, any and all playoff matches are cherished.
Buffalo, moving on and expecting others to ease the transition, presented a good team on paper. Ryan Miller was still guarding the net, Thomas Vanek had scored 43 goals as a sophomore, Brian Campbell was an elite offensive defenseman, Maxim Afinogenov had the appearance of someone who had shed his label as an enigma and Derek Roy and Jason Pominville were essential forwards.
Ideally, the Sabres would be strong enough to end up in the top eight of their conference, although closer to the bottom of that section. However, it wasn’t to be.
Tenth place was the team’s destination over the ensuing two years, as they were close, but falling short of the mark.
From that point on, Buffalo has been a playoff contestant in two years out of three, slowly re-gaining its credibility as a consistent playoff-bound club.
While Drury is happily retired today, Briere’s deadliness, in comparison to his excellent play in Buffalo, is reduced and injuries are posing a slight problem.
It’s an altogether different story in the playoffs, where Briere rises to the occasion and epitomizes a game changer, having fired in more goals by himself than Buffalo has as a whole since his transfer.
The summer of 2007 was one that the Buffalo Sabres would love to wash away from memory and while supporters have a right to feel angered or betrayed, they shouldn’t allow it to be their defining thought of Briere and Drury.
To see the team in 2003 and their ascension in a few years is a credit to these two players, among many others.
Before scrutinizing Daniel Briere and Chris Drury for accepting greener pastures, bear in mind that they were instrumental in reversing the shape of the Buffalo Sabres and played their grandest hockey there.
They are owed that much.