That Patrice Bergeron is at the peak of his powers is not in question.
On Wednesday in Las Vegas, Bergeron finished second to Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Aside from Kopitar, Bergeron does not have many rivals in the category of do-it-all center.
The critical issue is how long Bergeron can sustain his excellence. The answer is both murky and terrifying enough to keep Bruins general manager Don Sweeney up at night.
On July 24, Bergeron will turn 31. He has played 820 regular-season games, plus 95 in the playoffs. That 915-game cumulative workload is third-highest among NHL forwards drafted in 2003, behind Eric Staal (977) and Dustin Brown (965).
The Hurricanes traded Staal at last season’s deadline to the Rangers for Aleksi Saarela, a 2016 second-round pick, and a 2017 second-rounder. Staal flamed out on Broadway, collecting 6 points in 20 regular-season games and going scoreless in five playoff appearances. The market for the unrestricted free agent-to-be is lukewarm.
The Kings pulled the captaincy from Brown (11-17—28 in 82 games last year). He is under contract at $5.875 million annually through 2022, when he will be 37. It is the definition of an unmovable contract.
The Bruins cannot afford any kind of similar slippage in Bergeron — not next season or in years to come. The alternate captain is their most important player.
During five-on-five play in 2015-16, Bergeron had a league-leading 9.1 Corsi For relative percentage, indicating how the Bruins controlled the puck when he was on the ice and how they had to chase it when he was on the bench.
Bergeron averaged 2:11 of shorthanded ice time per game, the most he’s logged since 2012-13 (2:12). He took 713 defensive-zone faceoffs, most of any player in the league save for Ryan Kesler (760). He won 57.1 percent of his league-high 1,978 total draws.
Bergeron’s soundtrack of defensive white noise has its equally potent counterpoint. In 2015-16, he whistled a career-high 32 pucks past opposing goalies. In all situations, Bergeron averaged a career-high 2.59 points per 60 minutes of play. He led the Bruins in power-play scoring with 25 points despite being the focus of penalty-killing attention as the bumper in the middle of the team’s man-up formation.
It was no surprise that Hockey Canada added Bergeron’s linemate, Brad Marchand, to its World Cup roster. Marchand and Bergeron have become one of the NHL’s elite 200-foot duos.
In 2015-16, Bergeron (68 points/2:59 average power-play ice time per game/2:11 shorthanded) was one of only three forwards to score 60 points and average at least two minutes of special-teams time per game. The others were Kopitar (74 points/2:34/2:09) and Ryan O’Reilly (60 points/3:16/2:05).
The World Cup of Hockey, however, will be the latest extracurricular activity to pound on Bergeron’s legs. Training camp will begin in Ottawa Sept. 4. The Canadians will play the Americans in a pretournament game in Columbus Sept. 9, then have a rematch the next day in Ottawa. Canada will play Russia in Pittsburgh on Sept. 14.
The games will begin to count on Sept. 17 in Toronto. The championship game will take place on Oct. 1. Bergeron and the Canadians do not expect to be finished playing before then.
That’s a lot of matches Bergeron will burn before he even steps onto the sheet at Warrior Ice Arena for his first twirls on the Bruins’ new practice rink.
So as good as Bergeron is on the draw, there is one opponent he’ll never beat in a faceoff: time. At some point of his career, the high-mileage center will start to slow. The Bruins’ priority is to defer this dropoff long enough until his successor is ready.
Ryan Spooner is 24 years old. His defensive game is suspect, to be generous. Austin Czarnik, Providence’s top center last year, has never played an NHL game. The Bruins think highly of Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson, one of their 2015 second-round picks. Forsbacka Karlsson will be a Boston University sophomore in 2016-17.
A center who could reinforce or replace Bergeron has yet to be identified. It’s why the Bruins are not in position to miss at the draft this weekend. They need replacements for their stars: Bergeron, David Krejci, and Zdeno Chara.
Bergeron could become an outlier, like Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, and Patrik Elias — productive two-way forwards who continued to touch the game in all areas after blowing out 35 candles. He is always in excellent shape. His exquisite hockey sense helps put him into positions that lesser thinkers don’t reach.
The Bruins could take steps to extend Bergeron’s window. There is no need for him to participate in another morning skate. Practices should be optional.
Crossing their fingers could help, too.