The Buffalo Sabres elimination from the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers came in heartbreaking fashion, having taken a 3-2 series lead only to see the Flyers rally back to win in seven games.
It was a tremendous effort nevertheless by a Sabres team which at mid-season appeared destined to miss the playoffs, but caught fire through the second half amidst a wave of optimism generated by the purchase of the team by billionaire and Sabres fan Terry Pegula.
The Sabres pushed a deeper Flyers team to the limit but simply ran out of gas, hampered by the absence for most of the series of forwards Derek Roy and Jochen Hecht plus subsequent injuries to Jason Pominville and Tim Connolly.
Despite their disappointing finish to this season, there's considerable optimism amongst Sabres players and fans heading into the off-season, thanks to Pegula's claims the club will no longer be hampered by the financial constraints imposed upon management under the previous ownership.
Those constraints were largely responsible for the dismantling of a Sabres team which went to consecutive Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007 and appeared poised for Stanley Cup contention.
Pegula has given general manager Darcy Regier the green light to spend whatever it takes to turn the Sabres into a Stanley Cup champion.
Of course Regier will have to remain within the constraints of the NHL salary cap, which for next season could go as high as $63 million, but the idea of a Sabres team with a payroll close to the cap ceiling has generated considerable excitement amongst their fan base.
Currently the Sabres have just over $40.8 million committed to 12 players for next season.
Forwards Drew Stafford and Nathan Gerbe, along with defensemen Andrej Sekera, Chris Butler, Mike Weber, playoff hero Marc-Andre Gragnani and promising goalie Jhonas Enroth are restricted free agents.
Their unrestricted free agents include goalie Patrick Lalime, blueliner Steve Montador and forwards Tim Connolly, Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer.
If the cap increases to $63 million, Regier will probably have about $21 million to comfortably invest in next year's payroll, assuming he'd prefer to leave between $1 - $2 million of cushion space to allow for potential call-ups and additions via trade or waivers during the season.
Of the restricted free agents, Stafford is the one who will cost the most to retain, coming off a career-best 31-goal, 52-point performance whilst earning $1.9 million this season. He'll like seek a raise of at least $3 million per season on a multi-year deal.
The remainder of the RFAs should prove to be affordable re-signings, but taking their projected salaries into account and combining them with Stafford's anticipated salary requests, they could eat up at least half of that $20 million of potentially available space.
It's a good bet most, if not all, of the potential RFAs will be returning next season. The same however cannot be said for their unrestricted free agents.
Of the UFAs, Montador could be considered the most worthwhile to retain, although if there's better alternatives available in this summer's UFA market it's possible he might not be re-signed.
It remains to be seen if Grier and Niedermayer are re-signed but if so it'll likely be on one-year deals for perhaps around $1 million apiece, provided they'd be willing to return for less money.
Head coach Lindy Ruff obviously lost confidence in Lalime this season and the presence of Enroth merely confirms he won't be back.
Connolly's lengthy injury history and inconsistent play in all likelihood means he won't be returning next season.
Buffalo pundits believe the Sabres need to bolster their depth at center and on defense, although given the amount of promising young blueliners on the roster the latter might not be as pressing as the former.
Quality centers however will prove costly, particularly if Regier opts to go shopping for help via trades, as this summer's free agent market is thin on talented centers.
Acquiring a first line center will cost them a young asset or two as part of a package deal but that's the price to be paid to address that need. Regier has depth in good young defensemen he could use as possible trade bait, and if he goes that route he'll then either re-sign Montador or find an affordable veteran replacement.
Regier will undoubtedly do his best with the new-found financial freedom he'll have to invest in his lineup, and the Sabres should ice a better roster next season, but it could take more than one summer to fully address their needs.