BOSTON -- For the second year in a row, it looks like the Bruins might be without a healthy Patrice Bergeron at the start of the season.
The then-31-year-old center re-injured an ankle on the final practice before the start of the 2016-17 regular season, and it ended up costing him the first three games. He played hurt throughout the year and saw his offensive numbers drop as the ankle, and a sports hernia that followed, sapped the high-end speed and explosiveness that’s such a key component of his all-around game.
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The season ended well, with Bergeron taking home his fourth Selke Trophy to match the career defensive accomplishments of Montreal Hall of Famer Bob Gainey. But the reduced skating speed and lack of dynamic burst were startling to see.
Unfortunately for Bergeron and the Bruins, it looks like another lower body injury is nagging at him as this season begins.
The Bruins exercised caution in bringing Bergeron along slowly during the preseason, but the now-32-year-old is again having physical issues crop up. He missed two days of practice, then had to leave the ice early on Tuesday, and once again skipped practice on Wednesday.
Bergeron is a question mark for tonight's opener at TD Garden against the Nashville Predators, and it’s beginning to feel like this might be his new normal. Perhaps the wear and tear of NHL middle age -- this is his 14th year with the Bruins, whom he joined when he was just 18 years old, and he's logged exactly 1,000 total games in the regular season and playoffs -- is beginning to take its toll.
Certainly Bergeron has years of good hockey left, and he'll go through stretches where he'll be the productive, conscientious player who's been a stalwart for the last decade-plus. But it feels like the nagging injuries are going to arrive with a little more frequency at this point, and some of these lower-body issues may begin to slow him on the ice like no opponent ever could.
His hockey smarts, his toughness and his skill level will help him offset any physical limitations, but it also might be wise for the noted work-ethic warrior to start dialing back the intensity in practice. It’s something Zdeno Chara had to do when he hit his mid-30s, and now Bergeron might be at the point where adjustments need to be made because of Father Time.
“We just had a conversation with Patrice that we have so many young guys here, and we’re trying to build good habits into practice,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “[As] you get older, you monitor yourself a little more and you bridge that with the competitive nature of an individual that wants to get better every daySo it’s hard for me to tell a veteran player that’s had so much success in this league how, or how not, to practice.
“He gives it his all and that’s some of the residual effect of a competitive person that can push himself in practice. You get the odd twinge here or there. You just hope it’s not serious and go from there. I think each individual is different and [Chara] is the same way going all-out in practice. It’s hard to discourage that because it sure is nice for the young guys to see that every day and grow in that culture.”
Undoubtedly the “practice-how-you-play” mantra is part of what makes Bergeron a great player and such a good role model for youngsters like David Pastrnak, Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk and all the other young prospects. And now is not the time to pull Bergeron off his massive special teams’ duties when he does get healthy, or begin dialing back his in-game ice time as the Bruins count on him to be a No. 1 center on a line with Bjork and Brad Marchand.
But the sad fact is that all these little nagging issues set in motion a hockey clock when all these things may become a fact of life, and that he simply can’t be a frontline center in his prime forever.
Bergeron has been the perfect hockey player in Boston for nearly 15 years, and was undoubtedly at his very best from 2013-2016 while averaging 28 goals and 62 points a season along with his robust defense and intense leadership. But we might be seeing the beginning signs of some degradation in Bergeron’s due to inevitable factors like age and heavy usage over the years, and that reality will be important for the Bruins to face if he’s forced to battle through another injury-plagued season.
Clearly Bergeron isn’t going anywhere and is instead the future captain of this Bruins team as leader and longest-tenured member of the organization. But the days of Bergeron posting big offensive numbers, playing boatloads of ice time and doing it all for 80-plus games per season might be coming to an end, and the Bruins will need to plan accordingly.
There are centers prospects like Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson in the organizational pipeline, and they may need to stock up on a few more high-end prospects in the middle as Bergeron begins to show the first signs of hockey mortality.