When it comes to listing the NHL’s best offensive defenseman, the player pictured above generally isn’t overly high on the list.  Mike Green probably comes to mind, as well as Nicklas Lidstrom, who has been the best overall defenceman in the game for the last decade.  Players like Dan Boyle, Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar might make the list, as might current Norris candidate Lubomir Visnovsky.

And yet, it is Marc-Andre Bergeron, a journeyman offensive specialist whose minutes need to be carefully managed, who is probably the best pure shooter on the back end in the game today.

Going back to 1994-95, the defenseman most likely to score on any given shot he takes is Bergeron.  Here is the active leader-board (min. 50 goals) courtesy of hockey-reference.com:

Rk. Player Goals EV Goals PP Goals Shots SH%
1 Marc-Andre Bergeron 77 34 43 828 9.3
2 Mike Green 79 37 41 878 9.0
3 Lubomir Visnovsky 111 65 46 1231 9.0
4 Sergei Gonchar 209 110 97 2515 8.3
5 Mark Streit 52 20 30 656 7.9
6 Dan Boyle 116 63 52 1516 7.7
7 Andrei Markov 81 38 41 1050 7.7
8 Jordan Leopold 53 31 21 693 7.6
9 Michal Roszival 63 33 28 840 7.5
10 Shea Weber 80 42 36 1074 7.4

One could make for Lubomir Visnovsky or Sergei Gonchar based on the fact they have more even-strength than power play goals and it is easier to score on the power play.  Therefore, if they had the same splits of power play/even strength shots that Bergeron has, they might have a better overall save percentage.

Bergeron’s an interesting player in that he is almost entirely an offensive weapon.  Unlike a player like Visnovsky, nothing else is expected of Bergeron: he plays carefully managed minutes, and contributes on the power play and offensive 5-on-5 situations.

His zone usage bears that out:

Season Team Off. Zone Start Team Rk. League Rk.
2007-08 NYI/ANA 50.2% 2nd (NYI)
2008-09 Minnesota 66.8% 1st 2nd
2009-10 Montreal 54.6% 1st 50th
2010-11 Tampa Bay 69.2% 1st 1st

Twice in the past three years, Bergeron has bin in the top-two among NHL defencemen in terms of starting in the offensive zone.

It’s interesting to look at how coaches deploy their players in this way.  In Bergeron’s case, both Jacques Lemaire and Guy Boucher have been fanatical about using him in the offensive zone, which makes a lot of sense: his strengths are offensive, his weaknesses are defensive, so why not play him to his strengths?  Even his coaches in New York and Montreal, although less dogmatic about the approach, always preferred using him as an offensive option.

It’s a breakdown I’ve always felt can tell us a lot about coaches: I’d argue that the ones who use ‘zone specialists’ are probably near the top of their profession, and that they’re getting more out of their players than those who don’t.

It’s also an interesting example of how a one-dimensional player can be useful in the right role: Bergeron provides a valuable service to a team that needs more offence from the blue-line, but on a team with too many similar players he might be worse than useless, playing a role his talents don’t suit.

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