Monday, December 22, 2008

What Does Bergeron's Injury Mean To The Bruins?

Ok, we've all had a couple of days to square with reality: Patrice Bergeron will never have a normal career in the NHL. He's still got the skill to be a 30-70-100 sort of player, but there is simply no escaping the fact that recurring concussions don't go away. Despite the cheery tone from the Bruins' front office, this isn't about his recovery from a single hit; it's about his ability to go out and play the game without becoming a perpetual IR listee.

Even worse for Pat is the fact that his game revolves around physical contact -- he's at his best when he's throwing shoulders in the corners and absorbing crosschecks in the crease. But if he's unable even to throw a garden-variety bodycheck in open ice, the rest of his game becomes marginal. If you have any emotional ties to the notion that Bergeron will make a triumphant return as a top-level player, now is the time to start weaning yourself of those hopes.

Long Term

It's hard to predict what this means for the Bruins in the long run. Bergeron might be serviceable as an occasional contributor, like Eric Lindros in his latter days, the sort of guy you try and bring back for the playoffs in the hope that he'll push you over the cusp. But try to project any farther than 2-3 years into the future, and the image becomes murky -- it's doubtful that he'll stand alongside players like Lucic, Wheeler and Krecji as they mature into their prime.

Short Term

In the short term, the Bruins will be without their second-line center pending Bergeron's evaluation and possible return in the spring. This might have been a devastating loss, except that he is no longer considered indispensable to the roster. Last season the Bruins made a suprising Bergeron-less charge into the playoffs, after most pundits assumed they couldn't compete without him. This season they sit atop the Eastern Conference, despite a tepid output of 4 goals and 14 assists in 31 games from Bergeron. He'd been snakebitten early on (Pat's 5.8% shooting is the lowest among all Bruins except P.J. Axelsson and Shawn Thornton), but lately he hadn't even been generating chances. Despite manning the point on an intimidating power-play unit, Bergeron hadn't scored a single goal on the man-advantage this season.

So, Habs fans, don't start printing division-championship t-shirts just yet.

It's a safe bet that Claude Julien won't tinker with the red-hot first line of Lucic-Savard-Kessel. Likewise, he's been getting great results from the "third" line of Wheeler-Krecji-Ryder. If anything, that "third" line has now become the Bruins' second-best offensive unit and further marginalized Bergeron and his linemates (Axelsson and Chuck Kobasew). As they say, when one door closes, another opens.

So, Julien is now faced with contructing an entirely new third line in Bergeron's absence. In St. Louis, he went with Axelsson-Yelle-Kobasew, but I don't see that lasting long. Yelle has been very solid, but his contributions are not as significant as the development of AHL callup Vladimir Sobotka, a high-energy center who seems a natural fit with Kobie. Axelsson is a bit of an offensive drag, but he only needs to fill in until Marco Sturm returns from IR; he seems a more natural fit on the fourth line with Yelle and Thornton.

As an armchair coach, I'd go with the following third and fourth lines once Sturm's ready to go:

In the meantime, get used to the name Martin St. Pierre -- the guy who was considered a spare part only a few weeks ago, and now looks prepared to challenge for a center spot.

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Spawn said...

When you opened your hypothetical case for what Bergeron's future may hold, I instantly thought Eric Lindros, only my opinion is much different. Lindros was not serviceable after a few concussions, looked like a mere shadow of his former, dominant self, and faded away into obscurity.

If that's the road Bergeron is headed down, I feel bad for him and the Boston hopeful, but he won't be able to "push you over the cusp."

Hopefully, he's okay and the "cheery tone from the Bruins' front office" isn't a facade, but mirrors the reality of a less-than-severe injury.

Tom said...

Remember when Lindros was first injured (that would've been in the neighborhood of 1998) and he still came back and was dominant for a couple of seasons? I think that Bergeron is entering that pre-Stevens-hit phase... he's still a skilled player, so there will be high hopes that he's simply moved beyond the concussions.

In theory he's got 15 good seasons left in him... will he go 15 years without getting steamrolled at center ice or driven into the goalpost or boarded by some young punk? No way. Sooner or later, probably within the next 12 months, he's going to take the hit that changes everything. It's almost a given, considering the nature of NHL hockey.

Spawn said...

Okay, I do agree with all that. Lindros was definitely a great player up until the concussion he got in 2000. As a lifelong Devils fan who still has a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer with Stevens leveling 88, I don't even think it was Scottie that ended the guy's career. That was just the final nail in an already airtight coffin. (I believe that was his 7th concussion.)

The big one was whatever he suffered that January, rumored to be in practice when another player (Rick Tocchet?) knocked him out with a punch for sleeping with another player's (Rob Brind'Amour) wife. I really don't know how much, if any of that is true, but it's certainly juicy gossip. Have any insights on that story?

Tom said...

I've heard the rumor about the wife-banging, but never seen it connected to the concussion problems. If that's true, it certainly changes the picture regarding the end of Lindros' career.

A sucker-punch from Brind'Amour would be enough to knock out Mr. Clean, let alone a mere mortal.

Andie said...

i don't know that its time to speculate yet. I mean, just look at the hit in and of itself. Unfortunately, Patrice missed his spot on the check as the shoulder came up, giving him a direct shoulder pad to the face from a player that really had some momentum behind him. Forget that its Bergeron that got hit - ANYONE in the nhl who takes a blow like that is going to go down like a rag doll. With the exception of a titanium-headed fighter, they're probably going to be a bit concussed as well.

I would be much more concerned if it had been a pansy hit that anyone could take and he went down. THAT is when you bring in the Lindros comparison - by the end of his career you could throw a pillow at the guy and give him a Grade 2 concussion. But I do honestly believe that any other player who had been in that spot at that time would have gone down like he did.

Look back, what is it, 1 or 2 weeks, when Bergeron collided with the goaltendered and took a shot to the face. I said to myself, "That's it. Its over." But it wasn't. He got right up and he was fine. You can't say that for everyone in the NHL - I am sure there would have been other guys, with weaker neck muscles, who would have been hurt on that play. That collision with the goaltender proves that he CAN still take a hit (well, could at least).

And as far as his missing a season goes, I used to be a fairly competitive soccer player and missed a year with an ACL tear. It took me 1.5 years before I had the same touch that I had honed from daily play before the injury. We expected too much, too early. If he's going to come back, its going to take time, and everyone needs to get off the poor guy's case and let him recover and play the game.

Anonymous said...

I think it is too early to speculate on what the future holds for Bergeron. You just hope it doesn't turn out to be an Eric Lindros or Pat LaFontaine situation.

I was very impressed with St. Pierre, especially at the dot.

Tom said...

Andrine - That's a fair way to look at it, and from what the front office is saying it sounds like Bergeron's not suffering any serious side effects at the moment. My concern is that he's now hit his head hard twice this season, not even counting all the ordinary collisions that happen in the course of a game. How much do these incidents need to accumulate before he starts to regress?