For Habs fans the upcoming weeks are filled with promise. The team seems well-prepared to deal with the new salary structure imposed by the CBA and, with the majority of players being restricted free-agents, they look capable of quickly signing the squad in preparation for the UFA free-for-all. As to those RFA signings, most feel that there will be few to no surprises; it’s only the dollar figures that need to be settled.
Saku Koivu and Jose Theodore seem sure to get their dues and the bulk of the rest of the team won’t be far behind. The two notable changes would appear, at least on the surface, to be the contract buyouts of Patrice Brisebois and possibly Craig Rivet. But what if, with the on-ice action due for an upgrade, the biggest surprise turns out to be Brisebois remaining with the club to which he’s shown nothing but dedication?
A shocking question for many who have followed the defender in recent years, for sure. From the gallery of boo-birds permeating the Bell Centre to the parade of media members crucifying him at every turn, there are probably very few who would consider keeping Brisebois for even a moment. His departure for France in the middle of season a few years ago left most with a bitter taste, though he was, in fact, on leave for stress. His highly anticipated departure before this season starts is one of the things most fans are looking forward to seeing.
Consider, though, the potential rule changes that are being bandied about: no red-line, no two-line pass offsides anymore, no clutching and grabbing. In this new NHL, defenders who are able to fire long distance passes with accuracy are going to become the most coveted. From turning a dire defensive situation into an immediate counter-attack is going to be held in the utmost regard. It will be the attacking defender that will garner much attention. Not that it hasn’t before, but perhaps never more than now.
Does Rivet have that ability? He’s never much shown it before. He’s a safer-type defender, either finding the outlet man or, more often than not, chipping the puck off the glass. That latter is wonderful for the clutch and grab hockey that previously existed but, with teams looking to generate more offence, it’s hardly the way of the future. Rivet has a huge contract and cannot be considered as anything more than a number four defender, and many would place his abilities lower than that.
Brisebois, on the other hand, is one of the better passers in hockey. True, his defensive game has always been suspect, but looking back carefully, fans might realize that Breezer put in his best hockey during the last season played. His defensive game improved significantly and, while he still made his mistakes, they were infinitely fewer and further between than in years gone by.
If honesty were a reality with fans, they’d look back at Breezy’s last season and grudgingly agree that, not only did he perform to a much higher standard than ever before, but he did it with far more consistency than fans had a right to expect. Lest it be forgotten, he led this team in plus-minus with a plus 17. That’s as a defender getting first pairing ice time over the course of 71 games.
Aside from Andrei Markov, the Habs don’t have a defender who can zing a precise pass over long distances – except Brisebois. Markov, should he return, will, in all likelihood, be in the first pairing – potentially with Sheldon Souray (although both Souray and Markov are left D’s). Ron Hainsey was supposed to be the heir apparent to Brisebois, but thus far he’s done everything except meet with expectations. While he’s certain to get another chance, time is definitely running short and, since the Habs will have to make the decision on Breezer up front, Hainsey’s lack of progression in recent years could very well count seriously against him.
Maybe Breezy is being paid too much money, but perhaps this new NHL, with all the new rules, with potentially more power play time, and with infinitely more emphasis placed on great first-time passes, is just the place for him to excel and to really earn his pay check.
Sure the boo-birds like to pick on his every move – everyone does at this point because he’s probably the most scrutinized player in Montreal. Theodore can have a bad game; Koivu can have a bad game; neither will get much flak. But Brisebois, if he has a great game but screws up one shift, will be the recipient of boos and more negative comments than Mike Ribeiro would endure for an entire season (not counting the diving fiasco).
And let’s not forget one other compelling fact: Brisebois wants to play in Montreal. There’s a lot to be said for players who are so dedicated that they’re willing to stay despite dealing with everything he’s had to deal with. One can comment about how certain players bleed Bleu Blanc Rouge, and that list must include Brisebois. Is it better to have a player who will go to war for the team because it’s in his heart, or is it better to hire a mercenary player who’s come for the big bucks?
That’s a question Bob Gainey is certainly going to have to ask himself as time ticks closer to making these decisions. Certainly the contract will weigh heavily against Breezer, but there are a few very important factors that will have to be considered before taking that leap to buy him out. This is by no means a cut and dried decision; in fact it might be the toughest decision made before the new season starts.