As the bumper on the Bruins’ No. 1 power-play unit, Patrice Bergeron regularly has his back toward angry opponents. This is not a comfortable feeling for any player, especially one who experienced the pain of getting blasted from behind and the misery of career-threatening post-concussion syndrome.
Bergeron had manned every other spot on the power play: point, left half-boards, high slot, and even net front. But his employer determined that Bergeron’s skill set made him the best option to serve in the do-it-all role in the middle of the offensive zone.
So as a committed employee, Bergeron resolved to learn an unnatural position.
“Every morning skate, almost every practice, I tried to take shots from there with [assistant coach] Doug Houda,” Bergeron recalled. “I’d try to work on that quick shot and being comfortable in that position. Your back is turned a lot from the play because you’re looking at where the puck is. Sometimes you don’t know where the pressure’s coming from. So I’m trying to get used to reading that, where it should be coming from, and reacting to it.”
It is no surprise that Bergeron has developed into one of the best bumpers in the league. Bergeron is one of the NHL’s superstars because of his relentlessness toward expanding a skill set that would satisfy most players. He is not alone.
That Bergeron and Zdeno Chara are two of the Bruins’ leaders is no coincidence. Bergeron is the 30-year-old right-shot center from Quebec City. Chara is the 38-year-old left-shot defenseman from Slovakia. Their job descriptions are as different as their native languages.
Yet the French-Canadian and the Slovakian have become among the best at their professions through a shared commitment toward improvement.
Bergeron was always a good two-way player. The Bruins identified him in the second round of the 2003 NHL Draft because of his smarts, skill, and defensive play. But he made his first NHL impression as more of an offensive player, playing both center and right wing.
Given Bergeron’s maturation into an all-world player, it is easy to forget that he set his career high in points (73) not last year or the Stanley Cup season but in 2005-06. It was only his second NHL season. It was the first of two occasions on which Bergeron reached the 30-goal mark.
The Bruins would have been satisfied if Bergeron’s initial player profile defined who he’d become long term. Bergeron was not. In 2007, when Claude Julien replaced Dave Lewis behind the bench, Bergeron better understood the correlation between winning and 200-foot play.
“After my first two years, I kind of realized I needed to get even better defensively,” Bergeron said. “My first two years, I wasn’t sure yet what type of player I wanted to be for the rest of my career. When Claude came in, it really changed that whole aspect.”
Bergeron’s concussion nearly caved in his reboot. He didn’t play again in 2007-08. He wasn’t right the following year, when he suffered another concussion after running into future teammate Dennis Seidenberg. But the process of defining what Bergeron wanted to become started to gain traction in 2009-10. It has yet to stop.
Parts of the game have always come naturally to Bergeron. His vision, awareness, and anticipation of where the play is headed have always been good. But he does his homework too.
After every game, Bergeron watches all of his shifts. He spots the things he could have done better, whether it’s a route not taken or a stick poorly positioned. He’ll study coaches’ video on opponents to identify big-picture ways in which they play. He’ll watch centers take faceoffs to learn their tendencies. Bergeron’s strength as a student manifests on the ice.
Like Bergeron, Chara also views the rink as a classroom. Because of his size, strength, and the physical limitations of a 6-foot-9-inch frame, Chara could have been happy with being a check-and-fight defensive defenseman. In 1997-98, Chara’s first NHL season, the game was still played in a manner that was complementary to his strengths. Chara recalled that against Philadelphia, he would see shifts against John LeClair, Eric Lindros, and Keith Jones. Such opponents helped clarify the heart of Chara’s skill set.
“I was always thinking about the foundation of my game,” Chara said. “What’s my thing to always get into or be strong at? That was my defensive play and making good, strong, fast passes coming out of the zone. Those two things were the most important things when I came into the league: playing really good and strongly defensively, and making good, strong passes while using my size and being physical.”
Chara constructed the foundation stoutly. But he wanted to do more. He was granted that wish when the Islanders traded him to Ottawa on June 23, 2001. The Senators believed Chara could add layers to his base by supporting the attack and unloading on the power play.
It wasn’t a one-way street. Chara had to improve his mobility, speed, and thinking to add offense to his portfolio. At the same time, the league was evolving in a way to take away qualities that were conducive to Chara’s style: holding, hooking, and grabbing. The red line disappeared. General managers were more comfortable taking risks on smaller, quicker, skilled players.
During the summers, Chara targeted his footwork. He stayed lean instead of bulking up. These were not easy things for the giant to adopt. The path to those improvements, however, has always been welcome.
“The willingness to make changes comes easily,” Chara said. “I’m always willing. I’ve always been the type of player and person who will do whatever it takes. I don’t care how many hours. I’m going to be working at it. I’m going to be doing whatever it takes to make those adjustments and work really hard.”
There is no confusion about the succession plan. When Chara’s stay in Boston concludes, he will transfer the captaincy to Bergeron. The only moment the “C” will float free is when it comes off Chara’s jersey before being immediately stitched onto Bergeron’s uniform. Ace students deserve such merit.
Options for Leafs with Phaneuf gone
The Maple Leafs were not very good. As hard as it may seem, they got worse by trading Dion Phaneuf on Tuesday to Ottawa. Phaneuf was Toronto’s leading blue-line scorer and second in ice time after ex-Bruin Matt Hunwick.
But by dealing Phaneuf and his seemingly untradeable contract, the Leafs expanded their options to correspond with the window in which they expect to improve.
It has not taken the braintrust of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello, and Mike Babcock long to recognize the depth and breadth of the rebuild they’ve committed to executing. Former general manager Dave Nonis, who signed Phaneuf and fellow contract anchor David Clarkson, left behind a heap that would rival any mess in an Allston apartment on Aug. 31. Not only did Nonis sign Clarkson and extend Phaneuf, he said goodbye to Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin. They’ve all proven they can play.
As Lamoriello leads the overhaul, the rest of the staff will wait for the youngsters to ripen. Toronto has good prospects in William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Mitch Marner, and Jeremy Bracco. Garret Sparks could be a younger and cheaper alternative to James Reimer in goal next season.
The Leafs have two first-round picks this June: their own and Pittsburgh’s, courtesy of the Phil Kessel trade (another swap of a lousy contract). They will bid for Jimmy Vesey if the Harvard senior declines to sign with Nashville and becomes a free agent in August.
In that way, losing the five remaining years on Phaneuf’s contract gives them breathing room in the future. The Leafs, who won’t be chasing a playoff spot next season, can wait until 2017 to let Milan Michalek and Colin Greening walk, thereby freeing up the $6.65 million due to the ex-Senators. They can buy out Jared Cowen after this season and receive a cap credit.
By the time their prospects are ready for varsity play, the Leafs can use their savings to lock up Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly long term. For now, Kadri, Reilly, and James van Riemsdyk project to be the Leafs’ future core, which has been strengthened by shedding the dead weight of Phaneuf’s deal.
“I think the length of Dion’s contract and the amount of cap space that is there, where that would put us at a given time, certainly not knowing where the cap will go — I always have had the feeling it would level off — this gives us the opportunity to do things,” Lamoriello said during a conference call following the trade. “It also gives us the opportunity when some of our younger players are coming at the end of their entry-level contracts, who we have high expectations for, we’ll be able to sign them. This was a transaction that certainly wasn’t for today.”
Jets will attempt to piece it together
The Jets made themselves better on Monday by signing Dustin Byfuglien to a five-year, $38 million extension. Byfuglien is like Erik Karlsson and Alex Ovechkin — singular entities who have no comparables when it comes to their skill sets. The 6-foot-5-inch, 260-pound Byfuglien skates, hits, defends, and shoots with a fluidity that no big man should be able to execute.
“He’s so fat,” one player told me, more in wonder than disgust at the ease of Byfuglien’s game.
Now that the Jets have settled their business with Byfuglien, the rest of the league is waiting for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff’s next move.
“Lots of pieces to the puzzle,” Cheveldayoff told Winnipeg reporters after extending Byfuglien. “You don’t deal with any one thing in a singular fashion. There are lots of moving parts behind the scenes. We’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us, now or in the summer, with our UFA situation and RFA situation. That’s the National Hockey League. It’s what it’s all about. There are teams in this league in similar situations as ours. With the uncertainty of the salary cap moving forward, those are the things you sit back, analyze, and project. The projection is always the key.”
Cheveldayoff’s most important decision will be the future of Jacob Trouba. Like Byfuglien, Trouba is a three-zone, right-shot defenseman.
But while the Jets have a good projection of Byfuglien’s next five seasons, they don’t have the same clarity with Trouba. Nobody does with 21-year-old defensemen. Trouba could develop into Winnipeg’s version of Drew Doughty. Or he could round into more of a muted but still dependable defenseman like Erik Johnson.
Trouba will be restricted after this season. His asking price will start at Dougie Hamilton’s six-year, $34.5 million contract. It will be up to Cheveldayoff whether sinking $18.85 million into three right-side defensemen (Byfuglien, Trouba, and Tyler Myers) is a good investment. If Cheveldayoff can stomach that price, Toby Enstrom could be the defenseman to go. If not, the Jets will reluctantly put Trouba on the market and expect a Ryan Johansen-type return.
Andrew Ladd is as good as gone. The Jets have more urgent things to do than re-upping their 30-year-old captain. Dealing Ladd may not be enough for the Jets to take care of their affairs.
Senators still looking for deals
Acquiring Dion Phaneuf may not be Ottawa’s final move before Feb. 29. The Senators, who dropped their first two games after the nine-player trade, are in the market for up-front help. Although Bryan Murray has been satisfied with veteran Zack Smith’s shift to the left side, the Ottawa GM is still looking for reinforcements at left wing. The loss of Clarke MacArthur (concussion) has been hard for the Senators to overcome. So has the quiet play of former Boston University forward Alex Chiasson. The ex-Star had just three goals and four assists through 51 games. Chiasson has been an example of an offensive-minded wing who hasn’t done enough other things to earn shifts when his shooting touch goes cold.
A man who’s OK with man-to-man
Mark Stuart is not fun to play against down low. The ex-Bruin is mean, aggressive, and stronger than a horse. Not many forwards succeed at gaining net-front body position on the Winnipeg defenseman. But in the Jets’ man-to-man defensive-zone system, Stuart isn’t always whaling away on forwards in front of the net. If Stuart’s man rotates high, he’s instructed to follow. Stuart’s skating is good enough for him to maintain good coverage throughout the defensive zone, even if his strength is down-low grinding. “Guys are quicker and bigger now,” Stuart said. “You can stay with a guy. Man-to-man is pretty effective. Guys are smart enough to switch off. You don’t see a ton of switch-offs anymore. You used to see a lot more. It just simplifies it. You know you’ve got your guy. You stay with him, then go from there.”
Columbus signed Ryan Murray to a two-year, $5.65 million bridge contract on Thursday. Injuries kept Murray from signing a long-term deal. Columbus will not be able to afford a similar bridge deal with Seth Jones. The ex-Predator will seek and deserve a longer payout . . . The Hurricanes are building something good for the future. Justin Faulk, Victor Rask, and Elias Lindholm are strong foundational players. So it would be in GM Ron Francis’s best interest to consider adding to his pick-and-prospect pool by finding a taker for UFA-to-be Eric Staal. Unless the captain is willing to take a big-time hit, he will not be re-signed. There’s a lot of mileage on the 31-year-old . . . Under normal circumstances, Teddy Purcell would be a good right-wing upgrade for the Bruins. The former Maine Black Bear will not be re-signed by Edmonton. But the Bruins will not be best served going into the rental market. Besides, Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli would not be quick to give his old team a discount rate . . . Frank Vatrano is continuing to tear it up in Providence. After the Bruins returned him to the AHL, the left wing scored nine goals in his first seven games. On Tuesday, the East Longmeadow native landed a season-high 10 shots on net in Providence’s 3-2 win over Albany. Two of those shots went in. Vatrano will be recalled if and when the Bruins trade Loui Eriksson . . . The Jets are seeing progress with 22-year-old Joel Armia, the first-round pick acquired from Buffalo in the Evander Kane trade. Armia has most recently been riding on the third line. Coach Paul Maurice likes Armia’s growing strength on the puck . . . The Bruins had an opportunity to claim Christian Ehrhoff on waivers and pair him with former Olympic partner Dennis Seidenberg. But the Bruins and 28 other teams declined to claim Ehrhoff after the Kings waived him on Wednesday, one day after their 9-2 thumping at TD Garden . . . After waiving Ehrhoff, LA is hunting for defensive help before the deadline. They are not keen on parting with Adrian Kempe, their first-round pick from 2014, in a rental trade. The left-shot Swede had eight goals and 12 assists through 35 games for Ontario, LA’s AHL affiliate . . . Andy Grammer, The Fray, and Amber Riley will be the on-site entertainers for the Stadium Series game between Colorado and Detroit in Denver on Feb. 27. If you are familiar with all three names, that is the most impressive hat trick of the season.
To our surprise
There’s no disputing that John Scott — he of the five career regular-season goals and currently toiling in the AHL — is the most unlikely NHL All-Star Game MVP in the history of the award. But it’s not always the greats who take home the trophy, either. Here are six other unlikely All-Star Game MVPs, including the very first recipient:
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.