When Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young in 2010 while his record was only 13-12, it was seen as something of a first strike for the new way of analyzing baseball. There was no question that Hernandez was the best pitcher in the AL that year, he had a 7-WAR season for fuck’s sake, but the fact that for the first time voters could look beyond the traditional win-loss barometer was indeed a shock. Patrice Bergeron isn’t quite on that scale, but he is certainly a player who is best appreciated with numbers beyond goals, assists, points, and plus-minus, and even beyond the metrics like Corsi, and expected goals that he utterly dominated.
The best way to try and describe Bergeron’s greatness is that he was always there. Not that he always showed up and dressed, though he did that for nearly 1300 regular season games, and another 170 in the playoffs. No, what there meant was that wherever the puck was, or more importantly where it was going, Bergeron was always there to meet it.
He was the best defensive-center of his generation, though it’s nearly impossible to think of a time he actually had to throw a check. It’s not that Bergeron was some shrinking violet, as you’d struggle to find any center stronger on his skates. But much like Paolo Maldini said about defending, “If I have to make a tackle I’ve already made a mistake.” That was Bergeron, who would step into a passing or shooting lane before anyone else new it was forming, who would dart away from pressure before it had a chance to lay a hand on him, who would snap a pinpoint pass from below the goal line to release the pressure valve for the Bruins, who would float into space for a scoring chance as if he had the ability to simply disappear for a few seconds, and then reappear someone else. It always felt like Bergeron was watching the game from a different angle than the other nine skaters on the ice.
Most 200-foot centers get labeled so because of an easy-to-spot dogged effort all over the ice. It’s easy to see them harassing their opponents in corners and behind the net and engaging in puck battles. Bergeron did all that, but mostly smiled at it like Laurence Olivier did at Dustin Hoffman’s method acting. “Why don’t you try acting, my boy?” Bergeron figured out long ago it was easier and better to avoid getting bogged down along the boards if you could just beat everyone there and escape.
No one was better at turning the ice over than Bergeron, no matter what the Bruins asked of him. That’s why he’ll enter the Hall of Fame at the first time of asking as an analytic darling, even if the voters who put him there are unaware, or won’t admit it. From 2009 on, Bergeron never had a Corsi-percentage below 55 percent, and only once an expected-goals percentage below 55 percent, when it was 54.1. The remarkable thing about those numbers it that 2009 through 2016, Bergeron never started a majority of his shifts in the offensive zone. In four of those seasons, Bergeron started 40 percent, or less of his shifts in the offensive zone. Whoever was coaching the Bs could throw Bergeron out for dungeon shifts and starts and know that he would almost always get the puck to the other end of the ice, and likely create something when he got there. Bergeron never had an 80-point season or a 35-goal season, and yet in his prime you would have found a lot of GMs who if given a clean slate on their roster would have made Bergeron their absolute first pick.
Yes, Bergeron racked up six Selke Trophies for best defensive forward, and mostly because the writers who voted on that were still awestruck by his ability to win faceoffs, and score points, while knowing he was a titan in his own zone if ignoring the numbers that sketched that out. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get it right, accidentally, most times. Bergeron did win a ton of faceoffs, and almost all the important ones. But it was only one facet of his game.
Bergeron also was there when it counted most, as he put up 20 points in 23 games in 2011, and also caused Daniel Sedin to piss down his leg in the Final as the Bruins won three Game 7s to win the Cup. He had another 15 points in 22 games in 2013 as the Bs made the Final, where he played with a hole in his lung and a broken rib. He and Jonathan Toews battling each other on every shift until they were both burger will be something fans who witnessed it talk about for a long while.
But again, numbers don’t really tell the Patrice Bergeron story. Even watching him would be hard for the casual fan to conclude why he was so great. Though he did possess incredible hands and vision, it’s not like he made a highlight reel play every night or would skate around three guys and then go top cheese to score. Bergeron saw the ice like a billiards player, all the angles and all the speeds needed to simply execute, and nothing more. He was a half-step ahead, cutting off someone in his own zone, removing the puck from their stick like a pickpocket, finding the one pass needed to get the Bruins out, and then being exactly where the defense wasn’t looking in the offensive zone, or passing the puck there if he wasn’t already there.
Players who lose a step but remain effective are often described as “having the first step in their head.” Bergeron didn’t need to wait until he slowed down to be ahead of everyone else between his ears. He was that from the moment he threw on the spoked B.
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