A complicated relationship: Briere and the jilted Canadiens fanbase

briere and the jilted fanbase

Let me start with full disclosure…  Despite him playing for my team, I am no big fan of Daniel Briere.  Briere is now seven games into his career with the Montreal Canadiens, and has done little to disprove the expectations that I had for him after the team signed him this past summer.  As fans, we occasionally warm up to players that we previously had some modicum of disdain for.  For me, Daniel Briere will need to do quite a lot over the rest of the season to endear himself. In fact, I feel that by season’s end, Briere will be a candidate for a second straight buyout. Upon reading social media, in the immediate aftermath of Briere’s signing, and after the team’s first two weeks of the season, I have seen that I am definitely not alone in that sentiment.

The reasons to dislike Daniel Briere from our perspective are quite simple.  On the ice, while he has shown immense skill and a particular fearlessness in spite of his diminutive stature, Briere has always been somewhat of a punk.  While with the Sabres and Flyers, I always felt that he was a weasel.  At times, he can be fairly “chippy,” and deceitful in his tactics, and is not afraid to embellish marginal contact, while rubbing in goals with an emphatic fist pump celebration. After Carey Price earned his first career shutout in 2008, Briere, then with the Flyers, took the game puck and callously flipped it over the glass. It was just one of a catalog of unsporting moves that Briere perpetrated over the years while wearing rival colours.

Yet, the major reason for my dislike for the Gatineau-born centreman is the hypocrisy that he has shown after signing with the Canadiens.  In 2007, Briere was a highly coveted unrestricted free agent coming off a 95 point season in helping his Buffalo Sabres capture a President’s Trophy.  It was widely anticipated that Briere would leave the Sabres, especially after the team lowballed him with a 5 year, $25 million contract in the days leading up to 1 July.  On that day, the Canadiens reportedly offered Briere a 8 year contract worth $52 million.  For Montreal, Briere would have been a boon on and off the ice.  At the time, he was arguably the top French Canadian player in the game, and the Canadiens were in the midst of celebrating their 100th year. Briere was also known to be a fan of the Montreal Canadiens growing up in La Belle Province.  Ultimately, he spurned his “boyhood club” and chose to sign with the Flyers for the exact same contract length and terms that the Canadiens had offered.  It represented a major slap in the face for the Canadiens, who were willing to make Briere their king. At the time, Briere said nothing about his boyhood dreams of playing in Montreal. He said  “In the past few weeks, every time I was thinking about it, for some reason Philly always came up at the top of my list.  I don’t know how to explain it. There is a lot going for Philly. . . . I was a little afraid the last few days [that] they would not call or be interested in me… They are so committed to winning, and that impressed me.”  The Flyers had come off a disastrous season, and finished as the worst team in the Eastern conference.  His agent, Pat Brisson said“Danny had many offers and lots of interest out there. He made sure to carefully look at his options. He is thrilled with the results.” Perhaps Danny (as he was then known, and who now goes by the more Franco friendly Daniel), was not as fond of the Canadiens as we were led to believe.  Subsequently, every time he came to the Bell Centre, he was vociferously booed.

So when Briere’s game started to suffer over the last two seasons, in which he recorded 49 (in 70 games) and 16 (in 34 games) points, and his play away from the puck went into free-fall, the Philadelphia Flyers felt his contract was too expensive for the value he provided on the ice. He was bought out, and six years after his first foray into unrestricted free agency, Briere was a free agent once again. On the day before the markets officially opened, GM Marc Bergevin of the Canadiens decided to give Briere a 2 year deal worth $8 million.  Suddenly, the guy that put the last place Flyers at the “top of [his] list” years earlier started to exclaim how proud he was about being a Montreal Canadiens player. “But at the end of the day, it always came back to Montreal and having the chance to wear that jersey,” he said. “There was nowhere else I could get the same kind of feeling…. Growing up, I watched the Canadiens,” he said. “I admired all those Canadiens players. I wanted to be one of them, and now I have the chance to be.” Briere, a victim of declining performance and advancing age, was a classical mercenary, who now suddenly felt the need to express how proud he was to play for his boyhood club. His game had suffered, and quite frankly, the demand for his services likely was not there. His quotes in the period after he signed with the Canadiens felt like a bold face lie, and quite frankly they were an insult to the most ardent of the team’s supporters.     

Last season, Marc Bergevin did the Canadiens a favour by trading Erik Cole to the Dallas Stars for Michael Ryder. Cole was 32 years old in the summer of 2011 when the Canadiens signed him to a 4 year contract worth $18 million. Amidst skepticism from the fanbase regarding the rationale for his signing, his first season with the club was productive for him, as he netted 35 goals. The team’s performance however was a disaster, as the Habs finished last in the conference, and saw the firing of GM Pierre Gauthier. During the 2012/13 lockout, Erik Cole did not endear himself to fans when he made several absurd selfish comments about the possibility of retiring because of the “injustice” of the CBA proposed by the owners, and his extremely lacklustre performance in the first half of the shortened season was what many fans had projected when he signed with the Canadiens in the first place. At the time of his trade to Dallas, Cole had 3 years left and ate up $4.5 million in annual cap space. So naturally, when he was traded for a younger, more productive and most importantly, upcoming UFA in Michael Ryder, Canadiens fans were pleased they got rid of the albatross of his contract. We were excited that we had cap space, and a young team that came off an incredible season. However, much to my dismay, Bergevin quickly frittered away that money on Briere. Being an aged, small and soft centreman, he was exactly the type of player that the Canadiens did not need, with Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais already playing centre. The decision to sign Briere reminded me of how then GM, Bob Gainey, in 2009 spent his newly freed up cap space to acquire Scott Gomez,Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri to replace Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev, who were both left to explore their options in free agency. The Canadiens were long called a “smurf” club in the Koivu era, and Gainey decided not to bring back Koivu and Kovalev to change the culture of the club. But, the Canadiens in the end spent that cap space on lesser players, without the same character and work ethic of their former captain. Koivu keeps producing for the Anaheim Ducks, while Scott Gomez turned into the most ridiculed played in Canadiens history, Cammalleri was dealt for pouting on and off the ice about the team’s awful performances, and Brian Gionta, despite his effort, has not lived up to his contract, because of age and injury. I feel like Briere will be exactly like those players, who underperformed despite their expensive contracts. He also appears to me to have the same makings as another small, soft forward, with a propensity to disappear, in Sergei Samsonov. Briere’s signing almost makes it appear that Marc Bergevin did not learn from the mistakes of his predecessors.

So all of that is in the past; how has Briere actually performed this season? Truthfully, the official stat line flatters him. In seven games, Briere has recorded three points, of which one is an empty net goal. For the last decade, it seems like the Canadiens have always had a player that has been overpaid and performed like deadwood during his time on the ice. Both Daniel Briere and David Desharnais are making a claim for that title this season. Briere started the season playing on the Desharnais’s right wing, and the two appeared to have such negative chemistry, that coach Michel Therrien was forced to break the line up after five games together. Many of their shifts were unproductive, and both players were often found along the perimeter, against the opposition’s weaker defensive units. Briere has long been lauded for his skating, but he appears to be a step slow, and not as crisp as he was during his prime years with the Sabres. Additionally, off the puck, he lives up to the reputation of being a soft player, frequently losing individual battles and contributing little else in his own zone. Over the last two games, against Winnipeg and Columbus last night, Briere was moved to centre the team’s fourth line, beside Travis Moen and Michael Bournival. Not surprisingly, he has seen his ice time cut from an average of 15 minutes in the first five games, to 13 minutes over the last two.

These are still certainly early days in the season, and the sample size for Briere’s performance with the Canadiens remains small. Some Canadiens fans are willing to give Briere a pass until the playoffs start, provided the team gets there. In spite of his dwindling production over the last two seasons, part of the justification for signing Briere was his playoff pedigree. Over this career, Briere has made his reputation in the playoffs, and appears to elevate his game during the post season. He has amassed a remarkable 109 points in 108 career NHL playoff games, despite his size and the tendency for the game to become more physical and tight-checking. Briere has also not been helped by the fact that he spent the first few games of the season with David Desharnais, who has increasingly become the team’s black hole at both ends of the ice over the last two seasons. Additionally, perhaps we can cut Briere a break in the early goings, considering he has joined a new team, and a new system, and is still learning to play with his new linemates.

Given the notoriety that Briere has developed over the years in Montreal for spurning the club six years ago, his performances over the next few months will be closely scrutinized. As his production has fallen off in recent years, and his skills have regressed because of age and injury, I cannot envision Briere making the impression that he hoped to make when he signed here last summer. To me, he is just like Scott Gomez or Sergei Samsonov, small players that tried to prove that they were cut from the right cloth to succeed in Montreal, only to be swept away by the pressure. Of course, for the sake of my team, and the sanity of our fans, I hope that I am wrong.

 

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

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