‘You have to be good everywhere:’ The Bergeron Effect on a new wave of defensive forwards

NHL

“What’s it like knowing the Selke Trophy competition is finally open now that Patrice Bergeron has retired?”

Asking this question of two-way players such as Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm and Ryan O’Reilly, among others, made them all feel some things. At first? It was laughter because of the nature of the question given Bergeron’s chokehold on the Selke, winning six times — the most of any player in NHL history.

Eventually, the tone of those discussions became more serious with players continuing to talk about the former Boston Bruins center now that he’s out of the NHL for the first time in more than 20 years. They talked about what allowed Bergeron to be arguably the greatest two-way forward of all time. Some of them went as far as saying Bergeron was one of the players who made being a two-way presence en vogue, shining a light on the difficulty of being that consistent in the defensive zone all the time.

“Obviously I loved to watch him play, but it’s nice not having to face him is the biggest thing and going up against him because he was so tough to play against,” smiled O’Reilly, the Nashville Predators center who won the Selke in 2019. “I don’t think anyone who is in the running for that is thinking, ‘Oh, I got a chance.’ It’s more you’re dialed into your game. Then when the season ends and maybe you get nominated. Then you’re like, ‘OK. I got a better chance because he’s no longer there!’ I think once that time comes, guys will be a little relieved that they don’t have to compete with him.”

Bergeron’s six Selke victories over the trophy’s 45-year history means that he has won the award 13 percent of its existence. His first Selke Trophy win in the 2011-12 season brought an end to Pavel Datsyuk’s reign after the Detroit Red Wings center had won the award for three straight seasons.

The 2011-12 season was also the start of a sequence that saw Bergeron either win the Selke or finish in the top three for the rest of his career. In 2012-13, Bergeron was second to Jonathan Toews, with the Chicago Blackhawks center barely edging him out 1260-1250 points (Bergeron actually had more first-place votes than Toews — 78 to 75).

Bergeron won the Selke in his last two seasons — 2021-22 and 2022-23.

“I remember playing against him in a 5-on-3 and it was always like playing against any other team in a 5-on-4 or a 5-on-5 just because of how good his stick was,” said Red Wings winger Patrick Kane, who scored eight career goals in 25 games against the Bruins. “It was just being in the lanes and cutting off passes.”

Thus, the reason why the Selke had colloquially been referred to as “The Bergeron Trophy.”

“He was such a great player for such a long time that it wouldn’t surprise me if because he won it so many times that in the future they consider changing the name of the award,” said Calgary Flames captain Mikael Backlund, who has finished in the top 10 of Selke voting several times in his career. “I don’t know if they could ever do that. But he played so well, and now that he’s not here, yeah, it opens up a chance for some other guys.”

Red Wings center Andrew Copp had a slightly funnier response.

“I mean, there were rumors he was coming back this year, right? Maybe in due time but maybe not yet,” Copp said. “Just because if I see No. 37 from Boston come on the ice before the trade deadline and he’s got an award named after him, that might be a questionable thing to have!”

Bergeron told The Canadian Press in January that he wasn’t trying to make a comeback.


MEASURING BERGERON’S IMPACT means looking at the historical context of the Selke Trophy and how much the NHL has changed from the time he entered the league to when he retired at the end of the 2022-23 season.

From the 1977-78 season, when Montreal Canadiens left winger Bob Gainey won the first of four straight Selkes, to the final pre-lockout season, when Red Wings center Kris Draper won it in 2003-04, the Selke Trophy winner averaged 0.59 points per game. The point totals for Selke winners ranged from when St. Louis Blues center Rick Meagher scored just 25 points in 76 games during the 1989-90 season to when Doug Gilmour scored 127 points three years later playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Selke Trophy winner has averaged 0.70 points per game. The fewest points scored in that time was when Toews had 48 points in as many games during the 2012-13 lockout season, while the most points belong to Datsyuk, who had consecutive 97-point seasons.

There have been four instances when the Selke winners scored more than 80 points, and there could have been more if not for the 2013-14 lockout, the 2019-20 season that was shortened because of the pandemic and the truncated 56-game schedule in 2020-21.

“Previously, it was a more defensive style of play, but now you have to be more of a two-way player,” Barkov said. “If you can be good offensively and, at the same time, reliable defensively. But that’s also the game right now, too. You have to be good everywhere.”

That offensive surge also came right when the NHL was starting to evolve from the “dead puck era,” when the leading goal scorer in Bergeron’s rookie season was Columbus Blue Jackets winger Rick Nash with 41 goals and Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis led the league with 94 points.

Last season saw 13 players score more than 41 goals, while 15 players had 94 or more points.

It’s why, for all the conversations about how scoring has continued to increase in the NHL, the need for two-way play and two-way forwards such as Bergeron and others became even more vital.

“That’s how you win in this league right now,” Vancouver Canucks center Lindholm said. “You look at all the penalty kills a couple of years ago, there weren’t that many ‘skill guys’ or ‘offensive guys’ and now all the penalty killers are usually your best players. Even if you look at a lot of guys who score a lot of points, they’re playing on the penalty kill.”

Lindholm, who has finished in the top 10 of Selke voting three times in his career, said being a consistent two-way player became important to him during his rookie season. He understood that not everyone is going to be a 100-point scorer, which meant there had to be other ways to contribute to a team’s success.


BRUINS CENTER CHARLIE COYLE, who played his past five years with Bergeron, said he looked at footage of his former teammate before the season started because “you want to emulate a guy like that.”

Coyle had the experience of going against Bergeron in practice and watching him during games. But he felt the need to go back and watch game film because of the possibility that he had missed something.

What Coyle saw were the subtleties of Bergeron’s game. He said it was how he used his stick, the way he reached out to take away time and space, or how slight movements would lead to a tipped puck, which would then turn into a breakaway going the other direction.

“It’s all these little details that go unnoticed,” Coyle said. “Sometimes, you think about a guy, ‘Why is he that good?’ Then you watch film and it’s like, ‘Oh my God. There’s like 1,000 little plays that he does so well.’ Those start to add up and that’s when you realize, ‘That’s why he is who he is.'”

Becoming a consistent two-way player who succeeds through subtleties is something that takes time. Red Wings center J.T. Compher explained what comes with gradually gaining a coach’s trust to be used in crucial defensive situations. Compher said earlier in his career he would see the ice time he had during the regular season decrease once the playoffs started.

In the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 seasons, Natural Stat Trick’s metrics reveal that Compher had a combined 462 defensive starts. Last season, he finished with 462. The 2021-22 playoffs saw Compher have 61 defensive zone starts in 20 games while last year’s postseason led to him recording 39 in just seven games.

“You’re going through growing pains as a centerman,” Compher said. “It’s not as hard as a defenseman in the league. But you still have a lot of responsibilities. I feel like I was ready for it the last couple years and more comfortable with it. You learn what you need to do to be successful defensively which is the details.”

ESPN’s most recent NHL Awards Watch surveyed members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, which votes on the Selke. Barkov is considered to be the front-runner for the award, while Couturier and Dallas Stars center Roope Hintz are thought to be finalists. Others such as Coyle, Penguins star Sidney Crosby and Canucks center J.T. Miller were mentioned as being under consideration.

PHWA voters each have different methods for how they arrive at filling out their Selke ballot. But if players had a vote, what would be their criteria? What sort of details and statistics would they examine before making a decision?

Compher and Copp said they’d look at what assignments players are drawing over an entire season. Are they frequently facing a team’s top line? Is the player a key member of their team’s penalty kill? Are they making their linemates better in defensive situations?

“It’s not an exact science,” Copp said. “But I think it’s the guys that handle matchups and the eye test solves everything. You can be minus-3 and this guy had [Connor] McDavid the entire time, but it’s [Leon] Draisaitl who put it in back door. Eye test beats all.”

There’s also the discussion of using analytics as part of the equation. Copp said he has come out of games with mixed feelings about analytics. He explained how there have been games when the underlying numbers felt accurate and other times when he questioned their accuracy.

O’Reilly said he feels analytics and the accessibility of analytics, in addition to how many times Bergeron won the award, played a role in why the Selke discussion has attracted more attention in recent years.

“It probably didn’t get as much attention because it’s not as flashy,” O’Reilly grinned. “You have to perform offensively and do very well. But I still think with the teams that have success and the teams that have won, they’ve had really strong two-way players, and they have a guy they lean on for that. I think people are drawn to it to see ‘What is this guy doing?’ They may not be up there in the top of the league in points, but they’re such an effective player.”


COYLE PRESENTED ANOTHER way of evaluating Bergeron’s impact: the challenge of trying to fill that void now that he’s gone.

The Bruins lost both Bergeron and David Krejci to retirement in the offseason. It means that players such as Trent Frederic, Morgan Geekie, Pavel Zacha and Coyle have had to work as a collective to make sure the Bruins have that consistent two-way center who can anchor defensive play on every line.

“No one player can take the place of Patrice Bergeron,” Coyle said. “Is it an added responsibility? Yeah, it is. We lost him, Krech and all these veteran guys with leadership. It’s not just on the ice, but it’s off the ice too. It’s in the locker room, but that’s something you want. You want more asked of you so you can rise to the occasion.”

New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier, who finished second in Selke voting last season, said he grew up watching Bergeron along with players like Datsyuk and Anze Kopitar. Hischier said those players showed him that a forward doesn’t necessarily need to create or score goals to make an impact on a game.

They can dictate a game by stopping others from scoring in those important moments.

“I’ve always wanted to play that way,” Hischier said. “I always took a lot of pride in my defensive game and have that mindset first of not getting scored on. Then, obviously, try to create some offense, but my mindset has always been D first.”

Coyle echoed Hischier’s comments when it came to Bergeron’s mark on why two-way play has become a point of pride.

“He’s how you’re supposed to play as a hockey player. That’s a hockey player,” Coyle said of Bergeron. “Both ends, you play the right way. You put up points and you’re solid defensively. That’s how it’s supposed to be done and he paved the way for a lot of these guys.”

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