“For me, the Montreal Canadiens fans are probably the most passionate fans in the NHL, It’s an honour to be playing for them, in front of them.” Daniel Briere to Canadian Press July 4th
“Growing up, I watched the Canadiens. I admired all those Canadiens players. I wanted to be one of them, and now I have the chance to be.” Briere in Montreal Gazette July 10th
I’m sure Bob Gainey choked on his breakfast cereal when he read that.
On July 1st 2007 Briere, through unrestricted free agency, earned the right to sign with any team he wished. For all of the obvious reasons, the Canadiens were desperate to sign him. Gainey put a six year 42-million dollar contract offer on the table. He even had Jean Beliveau talk to him about the glories and opportunities of being French Canadian and playing for the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. It fell on deaf ears. Briere wanted nothing to do with being a home-boy playing in the heated up atmosphere of the Bell Centre. He accepted a marginally better eight year, front loaded 52 million dollar deal from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Future teammate and friend Simon Gagne blew the whistle on Briere’s thinking when he told Philadelphia reporters “It would be hard for a French-speaking star on his own to handle the media pressure in Montreal.”
In answer, an obviously frustrated Gainey replied, “To have a number of Francophone players of that level on our team, we’d have to start with one. We need one to say yes.” Briere was not about to become “number one.” As a fallback, Gainey’s 2007 free agent signings became Roman Hamrlik and Bryan Smolinski. Useful players, but not a game-breaker like Briere.
Outside of a couple of columnists with a political agenda, the media in Montreal pretty much let it rest there. Canadiens fans didn’t. Nobody, including Zdeno Chara has had a rougher and more relentless six year ride at the Bell Centre than Briere. He always liked to shrug off the fans booing as an effort to throw a good player off his game. He was wrong. Unlike booing a Sidney Crosby, fans were reacting to what they considered a slap in the face by one of their own.
That was six years ago. Gainey is gone. So is his assistant GM Pierre Gauthier. Also team owner George Gillett. Geoff Molson and Marc Bergevin run things now. For them it’s a clean slate. Their only interest is improving their hockey club, and in their judgment, bringing a player who’s professionalism and character have never been questioned outside of Montreal, fills a major and immediate franchise need.
The Canadiens get a skilled forward for 500-thousand less per year than Max Pacioretty’s annual paycheck and a half million more than David Desharnais. He comes to the Canadiens without the long-term consequences that the Flyers may face with the five year contract they signed with Vincent Lecavalier.
Briere’s front-loaded eight year contract with the Flyers would have paid him $3 million for this season and $2 million in it’s final year. In each of the next two years he’ll receive 4-million from the Canadiens plus 866-thousand in each of the first two years of his four year Flyers buyout schedule. In other words he’ll make 1.88 million more this season than the Flyers would have paid him had they elected to keep him.
As to Briere’s change of heart about playing in Montreal? Simply put, the pressure is off. Nobody is expecting him to score 90 points. Even 60 might be a stretch. Fans can focus their attention to some of the team’s young stars, the true future of the team.
So, on one hand everybody’s seems to be happy. The only fly-in-the-ointment, is that nasty injury risk factor. While I haven’t seen much obvious deterioration in Briere’s ability at the age of 35, alarm bells go off when one examines the recent decline in his goalscoring.
Three seasons ago he scored a career high 34 goals. It worked out to .44 goals per game. In an injury-filled 2011-2012 Briere averaged .22 goals per game (16 goals in 70 games) and in the shortened 2013 season his production again dropped to .17 goals a game. (6 goals in 34 games).
Bergevin and assistant GM Rick Dudley would have put together a solid dossier on Briere before making their contract offer. That due diligence would have gone far beyond the cold statistics to ascertain the root of the career slump.
Two years ago Briere scored only 16 goals and 49 points in 70 games, the worst season of his career. In late January in a game against New Jersey, Briere took five hard hits, three of them from New Jersey defenseman Anton Volchenkov, the third of which put him out of the game with a concussion. He was out of the lineup ten games and when he returned he immediately went into a career-worst 23 game goal scoring drought. Briere finally snapped out of it with 2 goals and 5 assists in the season’s last five games and he carried that into the playoffs where he added to his legend by leading all 2012 Stanley Cup scorers with 8 goals and an astounding 30.8 shooting percentage for a team that was eliminated in the second round after a total of 11 games.
Last year presented a different set of problems. During the lockout, with the Berlin Eisbären (Polar Bears) Briere tore up the German Elite League with 10 goals and 34 points in only 21 games. His DEL season ended when he suffered a hairline left wrist fracture in a game against Ingolstadt December 29th. He reported to the abbreviated Flyers training camp with the problemn and missed the season’s first four games. I don’t think we’ll ever find out for certain what the residual effect of the broken wrist was, but Briere is a right shot which means the torque on his shot is generated by the left wrist. If it wasn’t completely healed, trying to shoot the puck would have been a very painful experience. In any case, Briere started the season completely out of synch. Playing part time on left wing, he managed only 3 goals and 2 assists his first 12 games. The best part of 2013 was a five game point streak in late February, but on March 23rd, with only 13 points in 24 games, he crashed head first into the boards during a practice drill and suffered his second concussion in two years. He was out of the lineup another ten games.
With Briere’s recent injury history, Bergevin and company could be accused of rolling the dice. Unquestionably they received a clean bill of health before signing the contract but we are beginning to learn that concussions have a way of resurfacing. The commitment is just two years, which hardly mortgages the future of the franchise. And what a gift it would be for the team if Briere were to put in anything remotely similar to his regular season of only three years ago, or his playoff performance of 2012.
Against the Canadiens he’s always been a tough opponent. In 44 games against the Canadiens he has scored 17 goals and 14 assists for 31 points with a plus-3 rating.
Briere is going to give us an interesting two years.
BRIERE AND TOMAS PLEKANEC WILL NEED TO TALK