Danny Briere: Fighting Over Which Myth Becomes Legend

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 29: Danny Briere #48 of the Philadelphia Flyers speaks to the media after scoring the overtime goal against the New Jersey Devils in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 29, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Danny Briere is a polarizing figure, as he can reasonably be called both clutch and a liability. He is both and neither at the same time.

Danny Briere has been a polarizing figure for Flyers fans since he signed his eight-year, $52 million contract in the summer of 2007. He was celebrated by many as the one to turn the team around - or at least be an important piece - after an embarrassing last-place finish the year, while quickly labeled an overpaid under-performer by others.

In the five years since, opinions on Briere seem to have quieted as his cap hit was marginalized by the ever-increasing salary cap, the emergence - and subsequent departure - of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the attention given to Chris Pronger as well as Claude Giroux becoming the face of the franchise.

Yet, he is just as polarizing as ever.

Where any Briere discussion used to immediately become one about his cap hit, the discussion now quickly becomes one about how "clutch" he is or how much his defense hurts the team. This, unsurprisingly, quickly leads to loud disagreements and insults.

As a person who has previously, without provocation, declared Briere would be named unhesitatingly my least favorite Flyer, I admittedly have a bias. Despite this, discussions on Briere should go beyond his awful defense or his clutch play.

Like anything, the truth about Briere's value to the Flyers is often not what matters in those discussions. Should his time in Philly be defined by the number of clutch goals he has scored, or by his crippling defense that resulted in poor possession and goal differential numbers?

It should not be either. The truth is much more complicated than that.

The majority of Flyers fans have grown to love Briere. His 37 goals and 72 points in 68 playoff games as a Flyer is, after-all, impressive. Then there are his playoff goals, including the overtime game-winner against New Jersey and his game tying goal against Boston in 2010. Largely based on his playoff performances, it has been repeatedly said that Briere is "clutch".

Unfortunately, there are multiple examples of Briere's defense costing the Flyers goals in the playoffs, including allowing his man to stickhandle in the crease in that same Boston game in 2010 and his disgusting lack of effort against New Jersey in Game 2 this year.

And just as his supporters cite his 37 goals and 72 points in 68 playoff games, it is just as easy to look at the very next column in his traditional statistics: -8. That's because with Briere on the ice, the Flyers have been out-scored 55-48 at five-on-five. In the past two playoffs, the Flyers have been outscored 26-15 with Briere on the ice.

No, raw plus/minus is not a reliable statistic. Those who use statistics to enhance their understanding of what happens on the ice dislike the stat because it is heavily influenced by team effects, coach usage, quality of competition, talent of teammates, goaltending ability, small sample sizes and luck, just to name a few.

But if the supporters are going to cite goals, points and "clutch", the other half of that equation is goals against and defensive errors. It is undoubtedly true that Briere scores goals. However, he does not score as many as are scored against him. It can reasonably be said that Briere performs "in the clutch", just as it can reasonably be said that he allows his opponents to perform "in the clutch".

None of that even mentions that the more meaningful statistics only reflect just as poorly on Briere's playoff play. He is consistently used against below-average competition while starting in the offensive zone over 60% of the time, and yet he routinely loses the puck possession battle, in addition to being outscored.

At still, he scores a lot of playoff goals. That part is inarguable.

Which brings us back to the division between the two Briere myths: is Briere a clutch playoff performer or a defensive liability that costs the Flyers on the ice?

The truth is that he is neither of those things; both statements are false. It's why the two sides cannot settle on a reasonable opinion of Briere. How can someone so clutch be a net-negative to the Flyers? How can someone so consistently hurting his team have so many big playoff goals?

It is because neither side is able to properly weigh Briere's positives with his negatives.

Since coming to the Flyers five years ago, Danny Briere is one of only six players to score 30 playoff goals. No other player, since the 2008 playoffs, has scored more goals than Briere. It's not only raw goals, either, as Briere ranks fourth among all NHL players in playoff goals per game (min. 20 GP) during the same time frame.

Simply put, Briere's playoff performance has been irreplaceable. You cannot simply go out and find a guy who will score more than half a goal per game in the playoffs.

And yet, would any Flyers fan call Alex Ovechkin "clutch"? Ovechkin has 30 goals and 59 points in 51 playoff games, or more per game than Briere. The Capitals also outscored their opponents 45-34 with Ovechkin on the ice during that span - although, that gap is almost entirely found in their 2009 second round loss to Pittsburgh.

That's the problem with clutch: It is not easily defined and sometimes the evidenced used to support one's case would also lead to an unwanted conclusion.

If Briere's 37 goals and 72 points in 68 playoff games show he's clutch, then Alex Ovechkin's 30 goals and 59 points in 51 playoff games show he's even more clutch.

Since I imagine this conclusion is ludicrous to most Flyers fans, it is only natural that there must be more to "clutch" than goals and points. Maybe it's the timing of those goals? Briere does have nine game-winning goals in five years while Ovechkin only has five.

However, Ovechkin scored 13 of his 30 goals in the third period or overtime compared to Briere scoring 7 of his 37 playoff goals in the third period or overtime. Is that more telling of "clutch"? What about Ovechkin scoring the game tying goal with less than seven minutes remaining four times?

It is not easy to define clutch. Any definition is arbitrary and subjective. Should Briere's second period game-winning goals prove he's more "clutch" than Ovechkin's game-tying goals in the final seven minutes?

There is no right answer. But I'm sure some people will try to splice the definition of clutch so as to include Briere but exclude Ovechkin because it is incredibly difficult to reconsider one's opinions, especially when those opinions are the result of incredible emotion.

Emotion is okay. Maybe you feel as if Briere is more clutch than Ovechkin. That's fine. However, that alone doesn't make it true. It simply makes it an opinion.

On the other side, it is true that the Flyers have been both outscored and outshot with Briere on the ice at 5-on-5, despite largely keeping him away from the opponent's top-6 and his own goal.

Whether you use traditional statistics, non-traditional metrics or your eyes, you can see that Danny Briere's defense is an extreme negative that hurts the Flyers. Even more so than his offense.

But quite obviously, there is more to helping your team than Corsi and goal differential. There is Briere's power play production, off-ice leadership and his unique place among those who averaged half a goal per game in the playoffs the last five years that also need to be factored in.

We should all properly weigh the positives and negatives of Briere. If we do, we'll see that Briere is neither clutch nor a liability. He is a one-dimensional player caught between two factions of fans perpetuating their myth.

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