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%|
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.|
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.