Different time. Different types of players.
Yet, the Flyers’ signing of wide-bodied left winger James van Riemsdyk conjures memories of when the team added another free-agent forward, diminutive Danny Briere, in 2007.
Briere was an elusive center who could dazzle people with his offensive creativity and his open-ice shiftiness. He was 29 when the Flyers signed him to an eight-year, $52 million deal, an annual cap hit of $6.5 million.
Van Riemsdyk, 29, skates well, but his forte is his dominance in front of the net. The Flyers signed the 6-foot-3, 217-pound power forward to a five-year, $35 million contact, an annual $7 million cap hit.
The high-scoring players aren’t alike in styles or sizes, but they were signed for a similar reason: To show the rest of the NHL the Flyers are “all in,” and that the rebuilding process has been taken to the next level.
The Flyers signed Briere after he had a career season in Buffalo (32 goals, 95 points), and he responded with 31 goals in his first year with the Orange and Black.
They signed van Riemsdyk after a career-best season in goals — 36 with Toronto.
“We needed some size, we needed goal scoring, we needed a left winger,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “This one just fit all around for us.”
The Flyers are closer to being a Stanley Cup contender than they were when Briere signed and the team was coming off a worst-in-the-NHL 56-point season.
“I think the expectations are higher for this team leading into next year than they were for us,” Briere said on Friday. “When I signed with the Flyers, we were probably what the Flyers of today were a year ago. Signing JVR makes the Flyers one of the contenders in the East. It’s a team on the upswing and a team that should be contenders at the top of the East for the next six to eight years with the way they’re built.”
Back when he signed in 2007, Briere complemented young players like Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R.J. Umberger, and he was part of a veteran core that included Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble, and Kimmo Timonen.
The Flyers were coming off a season in which they had a league-low 22 wins, and Briere and newcomers Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen helped key an instant turnaround — from 56 points to 95 points.
“Our rebuilding process wasn’t years; it was one year,” Peter Luukko, who was then the club president, said at the time.
The current Flyers won’t have to climb out of a deep hole like the one Briere faced in his first year with the team. They went 42-26-14 last season and earned a playoff berth.
But they have this hanging over their collective heads: The Flyers have not won a playoff series since 2012.
Signing van Riemsdyk was done to end that drought. If that puts pressure on coach Dave Hakstol to take the Flyers to at least a couple of playoff rounds, well, so be it.
Van Riemsdyk is “coming into a great situation,” said Briere, the vice president of hockey operations for the Maine Mariners, a New York Rangers affiliate that is owned by Comcast Spectacor. “I think it’s very exciting for him and the players and the fans where the Flyers are headed.”
Van Riemsdyk will give the Flyers more scoring balance and be a mentor of sorts to blossoming young forwards like Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, and Oskar Lindblom. He will also complement veteran stars Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds before they move out of their prime years.
He will give the Flyers two dynamic lines, and should help give them two dangerous power-play units instead of one.
Briere struggled early in his first season with the Flyers before going on a scoring tear. He thinks van Riemsdyk will have an edge over him.
“JVR has been here before; he knows the organization, he knows the team, he knows the city,” Briere said. “I think that’s a big advantage when you’re going somewhere you’ve been and you feel comfortable.”
Van Riemsdyk becomes the first significant free agent signed by Hextall in his tenure. Hextall finally had cap space after digging out from the mess he inherited when he became the GM in 2014. Since then, his free-agent signings — guys like Dale Weise, Boyd Gordon, and Roman Lyubimov — weren’t exactly game-changers.
Hextall went after van Riemsdyk hard and gave him more money than any unrestricted free-agent on the market not named John Tavares.
“You don’t really know what to expect when going into the process,” said van Riemsdyk, who, like Briere in 2007, had about 10 teams that showed interest in signing him. “This unrestricted free agency can be chaotic and hectic. The Flyers reached out very early….It came down to the point where it just felt like the best decision for me.”
He knew the organization from his first stint, and the fact that he is relatively close to where he grew up in Central Jersey didn’t hurt. Ditto the fact that the Flyers are on the rise.
The last part resonated with Briere when he signed with the Flyers in 2007.
Three years later, Briere and van Riemsdyk were part of a remarkable playoff series in which the Flyers overcame a three-games-to-none deficit and stunned Boston en route to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The comeback against Boston would have become iconic if the Flyers hadn’t lost to Chicago in the Finals.
Still, it’s a glorious part of the Flyers history. Briere and van Riemsdyk were highly instrumental in the 4-3 Game 7 win in Boston. The Bruins had a 3-0 lead in that game before van Riemsdyk ignited a rally by scoring late in the first period. Briere later tied the game at 3-3.
Van Riemsdyk called that series and that playoff run the most memorable time of his three-year Flyers career. He likes recounting that series with family members and friends and telling them “how special that was and how jacked the city was. Hopefully we again get a chance to do something like that in the future here.”
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