Yost: Bergeron exits as almost peerless defensive forward
On Tuesday morning, Boston Bruins veteran Patrice Bergeron announced his retirement. It marks the end of one of the most impressive hockey careers you will ever see, spanning 1,464 games and a hallway of trophies and accolades.
What’s so remarkable about Bergeron’s career is the sustained level of dominance we have seen over the course of his career. This wasn’t even your typical superstar – Bergeron’s dominance on the ice hasn’t wained one iota under Bergeron’s watch. And you can’t write a story about Boston’s staggering success over the last two decades without acknowledging Bergeron’s outsized role in it – from the earliest days of his career in 2003-04 through the greatest single regular season ever, Bergeron was rarely challenged.
For nearly two decades, Bergeron’s elite defensive play drove hugely favourable goal differentials for the Bruins and kept them atop the standings on an annual basis. In fact, finding a comparable for Bergeron is nearly impossible in the statistical modern era (2007-23) – Pavel Datsyuk retired nearly ten seasons ago, leaving just Pittsburgh Penguins dynamo Sidney Crosby. That alone says everything about the resume Bergeron’s built over the years.
Consider the career-to-date goal differentials of both Bergeron and Crosby and I want to emphasize this is the toughest possible comparable that exists for Bergeron – in fact, Crosby’s the only skater you will find over this period with a better differential than Bergeron:
Crosby has an edge when it comes to team accomplishments, with Pittsburgh having hoisted the Stanley Cup three times during his tenure. And at their respective peaks, Crosby’s dominance was without parallel. But as both players have aged, it’s Bergeron who has done it considerably more gracefully – Crosby’s intermittently fought some health issues and Pittsburgh’s broader play has started to deteriorate, whereas Boston has remained a total force. And that force has come in the form of Bergeron.
The other reason I think the Bergeron and Crosby comparisons are so fascinating is because they are distinctly different players generating similar goal differentials – and first-ballot Hall of Fame resumes, I would continue. At his peak, Crosby was the league’s most lethal attacker; Bergeron, meanwhile, has just been impossible to score on for as long as he’s played in the league, the type of forward who forces play into the opposition’s defensive zone for lengthy stretches and the type of forward who can force every attacker to the perimeter in the oft-chance they have the puck.
If you look at both players' performance trended over the same time period, you see two things: Crosby delivering outsized results from elevated offensive numbers and Bergeron's defensive dominance. What’s notable, though, is that Bergeron was fighting off Father Time as well as anyone this side of Tom Brady – whereas Crosby’s impact has become increasingly muted (albeit, still fantastic!) in his thirties, Bergeron’s been consistently improving:
Despite a heightened scoring era and always playing against the toughest competition, Bergeron’s continued to erase goals. He’s one of only five skaters who has forced opposing attackers under two goals per-60 minutes played and the other four – Daniel Winnik, the aforementioned Datsyuk, Trevor Lewis, and Chris Kunitz – either played further down the lineup or didn’t play in the league’s current offensive renaissance.
In short: Patrice Bergeron’s one of the best players you have ever seen on the ice in the last twenty years. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer. He has a genuine argument for being the best defensive forward of all-time. And most notably, despite being 38 years of age, there were zero signs of his play slowing down – perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all.
The rest of the league’s forwards won’t, but I’ll miss Patrice Bergeron. He was a unicorn. The only question I have: if Datsyuk passed the elite two-way forward baton to Bergeron, who does Bergeron pass it to now? I have one candidate in mind.
Happy trails, Patrice.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference