It takes a lot more than goal scoring to win a hockey game. Well, that’s not entirely correct, but it takes a lot more than finishing ability to win a hockey game, and the only stats that appear in a boxscore that are to be trusted are goals and assists.
Patrice Bergeron is good at those things, but he’s also good at all the other things that aren’t recorded in the traditional boxscore, the things you could, until about six years ago, only really see with your eyes. Patience in the neutral zone and impatience in the defensive zone, Bergeron doesn’t like to play too many seconds on the ice without the puck on his stick, and that’s a damn good thing, because there aren’t many players better in the game with the puck on their stick.
Look at the overtime goal he sets up to Brad Marchand:
I watched this goal about two dozen times, and what really grabbed me was that Bergeron doesn’t make the slightest hint that he’s going to cut to the net. Analysts love it when players cut to the net. Fans love it when players cut to the net, but Bergeron doesn’t cut to the net. He’s more than willing to take it behind the net, for the first indication that Anton Stralman makes the first move. Bergeron can do this because Bergeron knows that when the puck is on his stick, the only thing that can take the puck off his stick is Bergeron’s own choices and movements. He won’t be suckered into a pass.
As soon as Stralman bites, Bergeron sets up Marchand.
Trigger warning for Leafs fans here, but I went and re-watched the OT winner from the first round series against Toronto to see if there was anything similar in the way Bergeron attacked the defenceman. Replays of the goal don’t go back to Bergeron’s controlled zone entry, so I went back and looked through CBC’s replay to catch what Bergeron does on the entry.. He cuts in on the middle on a 3-on-3 rather than on the wing on a 2-on-1, but he gets forced to the outside by Jake Gardiner:
Gardiner is not known as a physical defenceman and Bergeron could leverage his speed here to cut to the net, but, like all good playmakers, one of his primary virtues is patience. He cut behind the net instead:
From there, the Bruins set up a relentless attack and got a couple of good scoring chances—both off the stick of Bergeron—and one that capped one of the most unlikely comebacks in sports.
Bergeron is a player who by the eye test is just as valuable as what the fancy numbers make him out to be. I’ve looked at Bergeron’s “Corsi On” and “Corsi” Off from Behind the Net since the 2009 season—he missed most of 2008 due to concussion—and charted them side-by-side to get an indication of just how much the Bruins out-shoot the opposition with Bergeron on the ice:
Corsi, you probably know, is the sum of all shots, missed shots and blocked shots fired at the other team’s net subtracted by the shots, missed shots and blocked shots fired against your team’s net. Behind the Net calculates its Corsi values as “per 60 minutes”, so this season, every 60 minutes of ice-time, the Bruins out-shot the opposition by 26 with Bergeron on the ice, and without him, they out-shot the opposition by just 7.
Corsi doesn’t pretend to count “quality” of shots, or presume that a 55-foot shot that gets blocked is equal to a breakaway. What it is, though, is a good estimation for offensive zone time, and typically the teams that are good at creating a lot of offensive zone time win a lot of hockey games.
As it happens, Bergeron is one of the best in the league at doing this. 5th best, actually, since the start of the 2009-2010 season. Hockey Analysis has him ranked fifth among forwards (this website calculates Corsi as a percentage, and if you’re trying to calculate zone time, percentages are probably the natural way to do it). The important thing to note is that while Bergeron’s Corsi percentage is 57.5%, his teammates without him on the ice are just 49.9%. Some players ahead of him, Justin Williams, Jonathan Toews and Pavel Datsyuk, have the advantage of playing with better players. Bergeron’s skipped around with different linemates, from Mark Recchi to Marco Sturm to Brad Marchand to Tyler Seguin, none of which you could call possession dynamos.
The other player ahead of him, Daniel Sedin, has the advantage of Alain Vigneault’s offensive-minded deployment for him and his brother. Bergeron doesn’t get the lion’s share of offensive zone starts (starting at one end helps out the Corsi number because the zone entry work is done if you win the faceoff) but rather takes the bulk of defensive zone draws on the Bruins.
Bergeron is used in just about every situation. Every year, when the Selke nominees are released, online hipsters will suggest that the three Selke Trophy nominees are better than the three Hart Trophy nominees. This is correct. The Hart Trophy will have scorers on “up” seasons, while the Selke rewards overall work. The contributions of Bergeron or Jonathan Toews or even some of the Selke snubs like David Backes and Anze Kopitar go miles towards helping teams win hockey games. It all starts with having that “do-it-all” forward that simply likes to have the puck.
The number of players I would take above Patrice Bergeron right now is probably capped at one: Sidney Crosby. The Bruins should, and will, lock this player up for a long-term extension. He still has some elite seasons in him, and his skill-set isn’t one that will wane as he enters his 30s.