How badly did the Buffalo Sabres get trampled in the NHL's free-agent stampede?
Enough for New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather to almost feel sorry for his Eastern Conference rival.
``I have some kind of mixed feeling,'' Sather said Sunday. ``I'm happy we got an opportunity to get these players. From Buffalo's perspective, I'm sure they're not happy these two guys left. But that's the nature of the beast.''
The Rangers made the biggest splash on a frenzied first day of free agency, signing two of the five top-echelon players available. Shortly after signing New Jersey forward Scott Gomez to a seven-year, $51.5 million contract, New York landed Sabres co-captain Chris Drury with a five-year, $35.25 million deal.
If that wasn't enough, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Buffalo's other co-captain, Daniel Briere, to a whopping eight-year, $52 million deal.
Briere immediately becomes the fresh face of a retooled Flyers team that also completed a four-player trade with Edmonton. Philadelphia acquired the Oilers captain, defenseman Jason Smith, and forward Joffrey Lupul in exchange for defenseman Joni Pitkanen and journeyman forward Geoff Sanderson.
In what will go down as ``Black Sunday'' in Buffalo, the Sabres' two-year reign as the East's most competitive team approached an end with the balance of power clearly shifting to the conference's traditional big-market franchises.
``I know it was a difficult day for Darcy,'' Sather said, referring to Sabres GM Darcy Regier. ``You just have to face facts that sometimes you can't keep everyone.''
Colorado made the biggest moves among Western Conference teams. The Avalanche signed Islanders forward Ryan Smyth to a five-year, $31.25 million deal, and San Jose defenseman Scott Hannan to a four-year, $18 million contract.
In other significant moves:
-Defending champion Anaheim found a potential replacement in the event captain Scott Niedermayer retires, signing defenseman Mathieu Schneider to a two-year, $11.25 million contract.
-Detroit quickly made up for Schneider's loss by signing New Jersey defenseman Brian Rafalski to a five-year, $30 million contract.
-Toronto signed winger Jason Blake to a five-year, $20 million contract. Blake's stock rose after he scored 40 goals and 69 points - both career highs - with the New York Islanders last season.
The San Jose Sharks were shut out from adding players, but they did lock up Joe Thornton, who signed a three-year, $21.6 million contract extension that keeps him with San Jose through 2011. Thornton was only signed through next season.
And St. Louis managed a late signing, adding Nashville's Paul Kariya with a three-year contract.
Among the better players still unsigned are Rangers forwards Michael Nylander and Brendan Shanahan, Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray, Nashville forward Peter Forsberg and Detroit forwards Robert Lang and Todd Bertuzzi.
Briere and Drury's signings were among the most anticipated, in part because they marked the breakup of a Sabres team that had won a league-leading 105 games over the past two seasons and both times reached, and lost, the East finals.
While somewhat handcuffed by the salary cap, Buffalo was philosophically unwilling to overburden its payroll structure with top-heavy salaries.
The Rangers and Flyers - attempting to rebound after winning a league-worst 22 games last season - had a different approach.
Gomez and Briere will be the league's top-paid players next season, both scheduled to make $10 million. Drury's contract averages out to more money per year than Gomez and Briere, but he'll make $7.1 million next season.
Briere was the top scorer available in free agency after finishing 10th in the NHL in scoring with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists).
The Sabres weren't the only losers in free agency. Joining them were the New York Islanders, whose roster was also poached.
Besides Smyth and Blake, the Isles lost two players to Washington when the Capitals signed defenseman Tom Poti to a four-year $14 million deal, and forward Viktor Kozlov.
Unable to retain Smyth was the biggest blow to Islanders GM Garth Snow, who acquired the forward from Edmonton at the trade deadline in February in hopes he could keep him.
``It was obviously not what we wanted to hear, but I appreciated the call,'' Snow said, after learning the news of Smyth's departure from the player's agent, Don Meehan. ``Don said we were right in it for Ryan's services until the very end and it was one of the hardest decisions he'd ever been a part of.''
Dallas signed defenseman Sergei Zubov to a $5.35 million extension, adding a year to a contract that was set to expire after next season.
Calgary signed Tampa Bay defenseman Cory Sarich to a five-year, $18 million contract.
Pittsburgh secured one of its young core players, signing defenseman Ryan Whitney to a six-year contract worth $24 million. Whitney was a restricted free agent, who was open to offers from other teams, which the Penguins could match. The Penguins also reportedly agreed to two-year deals with forward Petr Sykora and defenseman Darryl Sydor.

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