Newcomer Briere says size is nice, but Canadiens best weapon is their speed

BROSSARD, Que. – Getting bigger and grittier is fine, but new signing Danny Briere says the Montreal Canadiens cannot lose what gives opponents the most trouble—their speed.

Briere lauded the summer acquisitions of enforcer George Parros and big defenceman Douglas Murray, but he takes issue with the notion that the Canadiens have been pushovers in recent seasons.

“I know in the media there’s a lot of talk of the Canadiens being too small, too easy to play against,” Briere said Wednesday as the Canadiens opened training camp with medical exams and fitness testing. “Honestly, I never felt that way last season playing against the Canadiens.

“They were always one of the toughest teams to play against because they’re always on you. They’re fast. There’s no time with the puck. No time to make plays. Every play is rushed because their puck pressure is really good.

“So it’s important that we keep the same speed this year. But at the same time, it’s nice to have a couple of guys like that to give us some respect, physically. Those are two big additions, but it’s important that we don’t lose that identity of being a fast, puck-pressure team.”

The Canadiens finished first in the Northeast Division at 29-14-5 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign but were ousted in five games in the first round of playoffs by the bigger, more physical Ottawa Senators.

Marc Bergevin started adding grit to the team by signing rugged winger Brandon Prust when he took over as general manager last season. This summer, he added the six-foot-five Parros, an established heavyweight, and six-foot-three Murray, a physical, stay-at-home rearguard.

He also signed Briere after the 35-year-old was bought out by the Philadelphia Flyers, who were tight against the salary cap.

The Gatineau, Que., native is five foot 10 and 180 pounds, which adds another smaller-than-average forward to go with centres Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais and wingers Brian Gionta and Brendan Gallagher.

But Briere also brings skill, experience and a reputation for playing his best in the most important games.

He can also turn out to be a mentor for Gallagher, the pesky winger who was a finalist for NHL rookie of the year honours last season after scoring 15 goals in 44 games.

“If I can help, I’d be happy to, but in his case, all I would tell him is to keep playing the same way he did last year,” said Briere. “He’s on the right path.

“He was one of the toughest guys to play against because every time you hit him or punched him, he’d turn around and smile at you. That’s one of the most frustrating things.”

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Bergevin hopes the newcomers will add balance to a team that started strong last season, but tailed off heading into the playoffs.

Another boost this season could come from the continued development of Gallagher and Alex Galchenuk, the slick centre/winger chosen third overall in the 2012 draft. He had nine goals and 27 points in carefully controlled ice time, but is to see his workload increase this season.

Gallagher will be looking to Briere for pointers on how to thrive in the NHL as a small forward.

“He’s a smaller guy and he’s done a lot of things in this league that I’m going to be able to learn from,” the five-foot-eight right winger said. “Basically, I’ll listen to whatever he says and do it.

“It’s hard to find a guy in the NHL that’s scored more clutch goals at bigger times than him right now.”

The Canadiens have 55 players in camp, including defenceman Alexei Emelin who will be out until December after reconstructive knee surgery.

Parros and Gionta will skate in camp but both are uncertain to be ready for the Oct. 1 start of the regular season due to off-season operations.

That could give camp hopefuls like Michael Bornival or Christian Thomas a shot of at least starting the season in Montreal. Young defence prospects Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu will also be pushing hard for jobs. Currently, there are seven healthy veterans on the roster, but that could change if one of the young blue-liners steps up in camp.

Plekanec arrived in camp in a sombre mood after dealing with the recent death of his father. He arrived in Montreal from the Czech Republic only on Tuesday, after staying home a few extra days to help his mother deal with the loss.

“The last few weeks were stressful for the whole family, but that’s life,” the 30-year-old said. “You have to go through it.

“You have nice days, like when your son is born, and then you have days like this where you lose someone you love. It’s life. It’s over and you’ve got to move forward.”

The Canadiens have an intrasquad game at the Bell Centre on Saturday to raise funds for victims of the Lac Megantic fire. They open pre-season play Sunday night.