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Contextualizing Criticism of Danny Briere

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With the large contract and less-than stellar numbers, Danny Briere has been a target of criticism in Philadelphia for the past two years - if not longer.  With last year's injury-shortened season, a lot was expected of him this year.

Currently, he's third on the team in points with 40, but that's quite a way off from his 95-point season with the Sabres in 2006-2007.  Around BSH, he's received strong reactions from both sides - those criticizing him and those defending him - this season. 

Until now, we've generally stayed away from the topic.  We did this because it's both easy to criticize the highest paid player on the team and because it's hard to fault the team's third leading scorer.  To us, there are other (better) places to direct criticism and attention. 

But that changed today when a fellow Flyers blog - The Flying P - wrote an article criticizing Danny Briere.  In it, Jon wrote:

Even so, how does our top-paid player get cut so much slack in the point producing department? People will say he's playing out of position (okay, maybe). Others will say his inability to shake the injury bug has been his downfall (certainly). A more pejorative position might be that he's gotten too comfortable in his long-term (through 2014-2015 season) fat contract.

Whatever the case, he needs to be prodded to be performing better than he has. The hattrick in Montreal was nice, don't get me wrong. But the Flyers need more consistent scoring from their top players (read: top-paid). This is a business and, at his age, people are paid to produce... not for their potential to produce.

Now, before I go into my defense of Mr. Briere, I need to say that Jon did a lot of good work and it is well worth the read.  He compared Briere's production so far to players making within $500,000 of him, and we recommend looking at.  But, with that said, there are a few things he failed to mention that need to be brought up when looking at Briere.

So jump.

Let me just get this out of the way first:  how Jon approached this struck me as a bit odd.

It's a well-forgetten fact that Mr. Briere is the highest paid player on the Flyers roster (just beating out Timonen by about a 166k cap hit). Shouldn't that mean he's Philly's "Superstar"???

Who does he know that forgets the fact that Briere is the highest paid player on the team?  Really?  And secondly, I disagree that a player's cap hit is indicative of their "superstar" status.  Rather, a player's cap hit is indicative of many things, not least of which being a team's needs in free agency, the free agent market at the time of signing, and the production by said player immediately preceding his contract.  But, that's a minor complaint.

Like I said above, the story does a good job of comparing Briere to those players earning about as much as him.  The conclusion, obviously, is that he's underperforming.  Nine of the thirteen forwards earning between $6 and $7 million have more points than Briere so far this year.  But here's what wasn't said in that story:  Why is his production dropping?

Here is a table of Briere's performance since joining the Sabres in the middle of the 2002-2003 season:

Year GP G A P
2002-03 Sabres 14 7 5 12
2003-04 82 28 37 65
2005-06 48 25 33 58
2006-07 81 32 63 95
2007-08 Flyers 79 31 41 72
2008-09 29 11 14 25
Totals 333 134 193 327
Per Game 0.402 0.580 0.982
2009-10 53 21 19 40
Per Game 0.396 0.358 0.755

All these numbers were taken from Hockey-Reference.com.  Briere entered this season scoring .982 points per game since he left Phoenix.  This year, he's scoring at 0.755.  But a quick look at the table above shows you exactly where his drop in production has come from.

Briere is still putting the puck in the net as frequently as he has since joining the Sabres, and his goals per game rate is actually higher than when he tallied 95 points in 2006-2007.  Where his production has dropped the most is in his assists.  The last time he had this few assists per game was in the 14 games he played after being traded to the Sabres.

Then the question becomes, why has Briere's assist total dropped?  Well, there are two big reasons (and I'm sure there are plenty more, some of which Jon mentioned in his story) that Jon failed to mention.  First, Briere is playing against the toughest competition he has played against since Gabriel Desjardins started tracking the stat.  Second, and more obvious to a lot of people, is that his linemates haven't been scoring - specifically, Scott Hartnell.

First, Briere's playing against tougher competition.  According to Gabe's QualComp stat, Briere has been playing against the second toughest competition among all Flyers forwards at 0.054.  This is the highest qualcomp he has ever had, with Desjardins starting to track the stat in 2006-07.  While he also has a higher QualTeam, a lot of his struggles can be explained by saying he's facing the best players he's faced since he came into the Eastern Conference.

Secondly, when a player's assist numbers drop, the first place you look is to who's on the ice with him.  Maybe Briere isn't setting up his teammates as much as he used to.  (His power play assists have certainly dropped, from 6 in 29 games last year to 7 in 53 games this year).  But when a linemate he plays with nearly 52% of the time (Hartnell) has seen their goal scoring rate drop to their lowest levels since 2002-03, that seems like a good place to start. 

While Hartnell has actually increased his point/game output this year compared to his average during the past 6 years, his goals/game has dropped from 0.37 last year to 0.20.  If Hartnell was producing at the same rate as last year, he'd have 10 additional goals.  Say Briere got an assist on just 6 of them and his assist rate would be 0.472 per game and his points/game at 0.868, at or above last year's production. 

Think giving Hartnell 10 additional goals is too much? That's completely fair.  Last year was a career year for Hartnell in terms of goal scoring.  So, take Hartnell's 6 year average goals per game (0.292).  He would have 17 goals so far, rather than 12.  Give Briere 3 assists on those 5 goals and see his assists per game jump to 0.415 and his points per game go to 0.811.  That would still be below his recent output, but it wouldn't be low enough where people start claiming he's getting "a free pass."

All of this isn't to say Briere is free from blame - he certainly is deserving.  The problem is that any critique of Briere needs to look at where his drop in production has come from.  When his point production drops solely in the assist category and Scott Hartnell has seen his goals per game drop significantly, there's a correlation there that needs to be mentioned.

Maybe Hartnell isn't scoring because Briere isn't setting him up.  But maybe Briere isn't getting the assists because Hartnell isn't burying them.  It's probably a little bit of both, but any Briere critique needs to at least mention Scott Hartnell.