It appears the Montreal Canadiens could start next season with five forwards who are five-foot-ten or shorter – feel free to freak-out, Habs Nation.
The incipient hand-wringing conveniently ignores the fact they had four stumpy-ish forwards even before they gave free agent Daniel Brière two years, $8-million and no-move protection to join the party.
Why, the high-strung fan might ask, in the world has Marc Bergevin done this?
It’s simple, really.
The Habs need more high-end offensive skill, and Brière has tons of it, even though he’s older and several concussions removed from the 95-point player he was the last time Montreal tried to woo him (it was in 2007, he bolted to Philly, in much the same way Vinny Lecavalier, another compliance buyout case, did earlier this week).
Also, hockey fans have short memories: small can be beautiful.
In 2010, the Habs were propelled to the Eastern Conference final by a five-foot-nine scoring machine – Mike Cammalleri – and hot goaltending, only to be done in by the Flyers and Brière, who was dominant in the playoffs that year.
Which is really the point.
Bergevin said at last weekend’s draft that it’s nice to have players who can get you to the playoffs, but you also need people who can get you through them.
Brière, despite his stature, is a playoff monster, having scored 109 points in 108 post-season games.
The move is not without risk, given Brière is 36 now, and his point-per-game production in the regular season has sagged noticeably – he managed only six goals and 10 assists in 34 games last season, hence the Flyers’ decision to buy him out to save cap space.
Athletes, being proud, don’t take kindly to being discarded, and Brière said he’s extra motivated.
“I wasn’t happy with the way things went (last season), I’m going to do everything in my power to turn that around,” he told a conference call from former teammate Claude Giroux’s golf tournament in Hearst, Ont.
And there’s another intangible factor driving Brière this summer: the prospect of pulling on the famed CH.
“In the bottom of my heart I’ve always been a kid who grew up dreaming of playing for the Canadiens.
I’m spoiled to have a second chance . . . it’s a great, great honour for me,” said Brière, who added he is suffering no ill effects from the concussion he suffered last year, his second in as many seasons.
In essence, the Habs’ decision needs to be looked at this way: Brière replaces Michael Ryder, who had an indifferent playoffs, as a top six right winger (though he’s a natural centre) and as the main right-handed one-timer threat on the top power-play unit (although Brendan Gallagher may have something to say about that this year).
The other main factor: Brière comes at the right price – $500,000 more than Ryder earned last year, and less than Lecavalier is getting or what big bodies David Clarkson or Ryane Clowe should command when teams are allowed to sign them Friday.
He’s prepared to play whatever position the team wants, and more importantly, is willing to embrace the role of Francophone offensive star that Lecavalier evidently didn’t feel strongly enough about to sign on the dotted line.
Sure, Brière is from Gatineau, not Montreal, but the symbolism of his decision to commit to the team he grew up cheering for – even if it’s at the second time of asking – is unmistakable.
When he raised the idea of signing in Montreal with his family, the reaction was near unanimous: do it.
“Having my parents and friends close by was a big factor. We all grew up cheering for the Canadiens, everyone was pushing me the same way,” said Brière, whose children live in Pennsylvania (“we haven’t gotten around to figuring that out yet.”)
Brière acknowledged the unique pressures associated with being a French-speaking player in Montreal, and if it was a factor against signing for the Habs in 2007 – which he’s hinted at in the past – it was an attraction this time around.
“I’m a little older, I hope I’ve acquired a little maturity . . . I feel ready for it,” said Brière, who was also courted by the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils, among others. “When the Canadiens called, my eyes definitely twinkled a little more . . . I realize I won’t have another chance to play in Montreal.”
The decision to sign him is a deeply unpopular one in some segments of the fan base and commentariat – one Montreal radio host sent out a Tweet saying the honeymoon with Bergevin is over – but for every hater there is a lover, Brière’s phone fairly exploded with text messages and emails (“I can’t keep up”).
So, yeah, he’s not six-foot-five and 238 pounds, like 2013 first round pick Michael McCarron, but Brière doesn’t make the Habs worse, provided he can stay healthy.
A motivated, chip-on-his-shoulder player of his skills and experience might even make them appreciably better.