And the new Flyers centre’s assessment of his debut? “Exciting,” he said. Briere practically felt like a rookie again when Philadelphia opened training camp Friday, learning new players, new plays and what second-year coach John Stevens wants from him. The latter idea is the easiest part: Be the scorer and playmaker like he was in Buffalo.
“He’s a great player and we expect big things from him,” Stevens said.
Briere eventually settled down on the ice after a first 15 minutes where he said he didn’t really accomplish anything. Once he did, playing in an intrasquad game on the same line as Simon Gagne, Briere gave the Flyers fans that filled the practice rink a sneak peek of how well the two former all-stars are expected to mesh.
“I think they’ll try to fast-track the chemistry,” Stevens said. “It’s a pairing we’ll take a long look at. There’s no reason they can’t have a lot of success together.”
Success. Something the Flyers took for granted for most of their first 40 years. A couple of Stanley Cups, a steady string of playoff appearances and one of most loyal fan bases in the NHL made hockey more than a fringe sport in Philadelphia.
Then came last season – the worst in franchise history. The Flyers (22-48-12) were the worst team in the league, missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994, and set team records for most losses and fewest points (56).
Five months later, the Flyers are talking playoffs.
“We have the chance to really start something,” Briere said. “Everybody wants to get off to a better start. We have to forget about what happened last season.”
Easy for Briere to say. He wasn’t here.
But the reason for the renewed optimism comes after a summer of shrewd moves by general manager Paul Holmgren that has the Flyers believing they can move back into the post-season as quickly as they fell out of contention.
“It was a very long summer,” Gagne said.
Long, but busy.
Holmgren kept going with the job he started at the trade deadline, when he jettisoned Peter Forsberg and acquired key pieces like goalie Martin Biron and forward Scottie Upshall. Then Holmgren traded for Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell, Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul in the summer.
The lynchpin of all the moves was signing Sabres co-captain Briere to a US$52-million, eight-year contract to fill the spot vacated by Forsberg, who never lived up to his potential and suffered through 1½ injury-plagued seasons.
A nine-year veteran, Briere emerged as a star with the Sabres and finished 10th in the league with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) last season. He also produced in the clutch, scoring 10 game-winners over the past two seasons.
Throw in Gagne’s 41 goals and 68 points last season, and Mike Knuble’s 24 goals and 54 points and the Flyers could boast one of the top first lines in the Eastern Conference.
“We all believe that we have a team that right away can be a very good team,” Briere said.
The core of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and R.J. Umberger also gives the Flyers a reason to believe that last year was nothing but a blip and not the beginning of a massive decline.
Stevens, starting his first full season, wants all the new faces to quickly blend with the returners. He broke the team up into four smaller squads that will scrimmage through Sunday. Then the Flyers play the first of their eight pre-season games against New Jersey on Monday.
The Flyers open the season Oct. 4 at Calgary.
Briere and Gagne took a couple of practice shots on former Flyers Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent after Friday’s scrimmage, then posed for a picture with a Ben Franklin impersonator.
Yes, it only seems like 1776 since the Flyers last won the Stanley Cup.
The Flyers brought out the relics of Philadelphia’s past to celebrate the unveiling of their new uniforms. But they know it’s the makeover on the ice, and not a fashion one, that will really make a statement.