On every Bruins broadcast, commentators talk about toughness. They point to the club's bruisers -- Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton and others -- as the differentiating factor and the embodiment of this team. There's certainly some value to these players, especially Lucic, and the influence they have on games is unquestioned.
Toughness, though, takes many forms. Hockey coaches are fond of discussing mental toughness. The ability to be the same player in 6-0 blowout and a one-goal game. Throughout the league, there are several players that define this, but no one on Causeway Street is a greater manifestation of this concept than Patrice Bergeron. He isn't a fighter. He isn't a power forward or a bottom-six grinder that hockey oldest souls glorify despite questionable value. In every sense of the word, Patrice Bergeron is hockey player -- a pretty damn tough one at that.
Thursday night, the Bruins dispatched the Toronto Maple Leafs for what seems like the 100th time in a row. The usual combination of smart defense, solid goaltending and timely offense led to the win. And, just as typically, it was Bergeron at the center of it all.
He scored the Bruins' first goal and added a pair of assists on the club's second and fourth goals -- both scored by Tyler Seguin. Beyond that, he won 60 percent of his faceoffs -- a number that is actually below his pace of 61.6 percent. For the year, he leads the team in points with six goals and 15 assists, plus/minus at plus-17 and is second in average time on ice among forwards at 18 minutes, 59 seconds -- behind only David Krejci.
It's not difficult to see Bergeron's effect on a game, but his true value extends beyond numbers. Ignoring statistics in the name of intangible contributions often leads to overrating players in the name of toughness. In Bergeron's case, the argument is easy to make, though. Mark Recchi was uncommonly fond of Bergeron during in his time with the Bruins. The Hall-of-Fame-bound winger viewed the younger-than-anyone realizes Bergeron as the ultimate teammate; someone he, even at the age of 43, still learned from every day. He said as much in an interview with ESPN's Scott Burnside five months before the Bruins won a Stanley Cup.
Bruins coach Claude Julien holds his 27-year-old center in a similarly high regard. Placing Brad Marchand alongside Bergeron in Recchi in 2010-11 symbolized the trust he holds for the club's alternate captain. Replacing Recchi with Seguin the following season was even bolder mood, entrusting Bergeron with guiding Seguin along his path to stardom in the National Hockey League. Seguin responded with a 67-point season that saw him become a reliable three-zone player just as well. After signing a six-year, $34. 5 million contract extension last summer, Seguin credited Bergeron with much of his development.
"I know it is a lot more of a learning process still going on and I'd like to say that even though 'Bergy' is still young and my linemate, for the most part I'd like to say he's my role model," Seguin said in an interview with ESPN's James Murphy. "I'm not going to get right to Bergy's stage, but it's somewhere where I strive to be."
Becoming a player like Bergeron, like Seguin said, isn't a transformation that happens in a couple months or even a few seasons. Bergeron's development hit a few snags along the way, most notably after the concussion he suffered during the 2007-08 season. Since returning to the NHL in the following year, Bergeron's steady rise into one of the game's elite three-zone centers has continued. The Selke Trophy he won last season is a testament to his defensive excellence and, yes, his toughness -- the toughness it takes to lead the league's best penalty kill and one of its most productive lines. These are just small parts of Bergeron's full body of work.
For many, the Bruins' willingness to foolishly prove just how "tough" they can be has become a bit of a tired act. Fights and plainly dumb hits result in penalties and losses that hurt the team more than they're ever willing to admit. Through it all, there is Bergeron -- the guy so frequently called upon to wipe out a two-minute penalty when Lucic or another of the Bruins' muscle corps does something stupid.
There are never complaints from Bergeron, or even a hint of frustration. He just does his job, shuts down an opponent's best players and adds a couple points of his own. These things never bother him. Toughness is most certainly a positive attribute of the Bruins, but it isn't just about being big and mean. It's about winning 60 percent of faceoffs and killing more than 90 percent of penalties. Those things start with Patrice Bergeron -- the toughest player on the Boston Bruins.