Career-Ending Buyout Trend & What it Could Mean for Daniel Briere

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Getty Images

By Ryan Kiray (@RyanK_THG)

With informed parties among NHL circles hinting that forward Daniel Briere is on the Montreal Canadiens’ trading block, it appears that the embattled forward may soon find himself on the move to the fifth team of his NHL career. Briere, a frequent target of trade and buyout rumors since signing an 8-year, $52 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, has not enjoyed the productive and stable long-term partnership that he likely envisioned when signing that deal. The contract, in hindsight, was not commensurate with Briere’s on-ice offerings, though at the time it appeared to be a less egregious insult to the NHL’s salary gods than the contemporary deal offered to fellow ex-Sabres captain Chris Drury. Briere’s inability to justify his term and dollar eventually led him to this spot of career turmoil.

A similar pattern emerged over the life of the last CBA, whereby teams would sign players to unjustifiable contracts in the heat of the moment, only to realize their crippling effects later. In a fit of buyer’s remorse, the players signed to these deals would be bought out of their contracts, or cast into the proverbial subterranean fires of the American Hockey League. Serviceable if flawed players like Wade Redden that may have something to offer an NHL team, if not the dollar-for-dollar performance that their salary might dictate, were forced to choose between their financial security and their NHL careers. The GM may giveth, but he may also taketh away.

While new provisions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement prevent teams from obtaining meaningful cap relief by burying a contract in the minors, and thus prevent Briere from receiving the Redden treatment, the threat of buyouts and retained salary trades to desperate teams is still very real. While that desperate team may be a talented, but cap-pressed and injury-riddled team like Pittsburgh (though Briere would do well not to hold his breath), that team may just as likely be a delusional club that thinks that a resurgent Briere might suddenly vault them into the playoff picture; think the 2011-2012 Calgary Flames acquiring Mike Cammalleri for a prospect and a second round pick despite having no realistic chance of making a splash in the playoffs. The recipients of big-ticket deals, if those deals are over-inflated, stand to surrender the very control and financial security that they thought that their deals had afforded.

Using Briere as an example of the phenomenon is admittedly a bit attenuated; he actually made more because of this buyout than he would have had the Flyers retained his contract. However, what is just as likely, if not more, is that the recipient of the over-inflated contract goes the way of Briere’s buyout mate Ilya Bryzgalov, or Habs cast-off Scott Gomez-struggling to find work at steeply reduced rates, and as unlikely to find work after this season as they are to find it. Regardless of Briere’s eventual financial wherewithal, he is still the latest in a pattern of players to fail to perform en route to a quick disappearance from the league.

Consider some recent ill-fated big-ticket contracts-Rick DiPietro, Drury, and Redden all signed deals that were universally lambasted when they were signed, and none are currently employed by NHL teams. For whatever reason, players coming off these deals, even those like Bryzgalov that are not without their talents (though in his case it his debatable if he is without his sanity), struggle to find work after having their contracts terminated, and often perform surprisingly below expectations. Redden played a single season after he was bought out. Rumors of new tension with the Oilers’ brass already circle Bryzgalov, though his oft-discussed attitude problems may have more to do with that than anything else. He didn’t receive so much as a sniff from an NHL team before signing with partway through the season.

The performance of these players may be considered to be the biggest factor in their failure to find work, but the lack of performance is surprising in many cases. Vincent Lecavalier is on pace to score at a serviceable but disappointing rate of just over a half a point per game, well below the pace set before his buyout. Mike Komisarek has been putrid for Carolina, though he should have plenty of game left in him by conventional logic. Other fallen stars such as Colorado’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere seem to have found niches despite their diminished returns, but victims of buyouts appear to universally struggle and fade. Whether real or imagined, there appears to be a pattern of players that have been bought out of big contracts disappearing from the league shortly thereafter.

Briere may fall victim to a combination of this phenomenon and the ravages of time. He may play bigger than he is, but does not play a game conducive to a diminished role on a team’s bottom six. Quite simply, his value is predicated on offensive production. If he cannot recapture that production, he will be not be in the NHL any longer, and will be the latest in a series of players to suffer similar fates. Imperfect though the Briere example may be, it does offer a warning.

While players cannot be blamed for following the money when it comes to their contracts, they must consider the precedent by the previous generation when formulating their salary demands. Some players, such as NHL legend Jaromir Jagr, care only for maximized compensation and cannot be faulted for it, but others, such as Jagr’s fellow great Teemu Selanne, are more concerned with loyalty and a long and Stanley Cup-laden NHL career. The former need not concern themselves with the ramifications of over-inflated deals, but the latter must know their value; history suggests that even when those players are not or should not be utterly devoid of value, a pattern of either substandard play or miscellaneous supernatural forces finds them out of the league sooner rather than later.

For the record, the thinking here is that Briere will rebound and continue to be a serviceable second line option; although he is aging, he is still young to have nothing at all left in the tank. However, if he does not, he will become the latest in a disturbing pattern of players that disappear from the face of the league shortly after being stripped of big-ticket deals. The reasons for this vary between these players simply not being any good, like Gomez, or a more amorphous and difficult to explain dip in production such as the one suffered by Lecavalier. Briere appears to be riding the same slide down to the unemployment line. Players that care whether or not they suffer his fate should be mindful that he is only the latest in a long line; if they do not know their value, they could very well follow his lead.

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