Mike Knuble recalls Patrice Bergeron as an 18-year-old second-round pick from Quebec who didn't speak English.
"Nobody expected too much out of him," the Washington Capitals veteran forward said. "But all of a sudden we were three weeks into training camp, and this kid's played every game and played pretty good. I think they kept waiting for him to take a step down, and he never did."
Eight-plus seasons with the Boston Bruins later, Bergeron still hasn't stepped down. Instead, he became a key part of a Stanley Cup championship team and developed into one of the best two-way centers in hockey. This season, he's a contender for the Selke Trophy, given to the best defensive forward in the NHL.
"Patrice always competes. He always looks at the defensive game first before his offensive game," said defenseman Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' captain." He always battles. He really improved his game with his stick. He has a lot of takeaways. He's getting better and better at faceoffs, he plays all situations."
Bergeron, 26, leads all Boston forwards in ice time and pitches in on the power play and penalty kill.
"He's always playing to the defensive side of the puck, and that's what makes him a great player and that's why he'd be the most sought-after player around because that's how you win," Bruins right wing Brian Rolston said. "Teams love it. Organizations love it, because guys that don't put themselves first, put the team first, that can be something that is rare in this day and age."
Not for Boston, which won a Cup on the strength of team-first players such as Bergeron, Chara and David Krejci. Mention the Selke to Bergeron, and he brings the conversation back to the Bruins.
"I believe a lot in team achievements in front of individual achievements," he said. "Last year was the ultimate prize that we won as a team. I think it's about everyone playing their role. For me, I think I take pride in playing the two-way role and going out there and doing the job against the big lines, but also trying to create offensively."
Bergeron preaches the need to be smart defensively in order to create offensive opportunities and has practiced it. He has 22 goals, 42 assists and a league-best plus-36 rating.
"He's not a superstar, but he just does so many things great," Knuble said. "Great centerpiece for their organization. He just does so many things great, and I think he's very respected by his teammates."
Bergeron grew up substantially even since his rookie season in 2003-04, especially in the faceoff circle. Less than 50 percent then, he converted at 59.3 percent this year, good for the best in his career and second in the league.
He hones faceoffs over the summer in Quebec City working with Antoine Vermette of the Phoenix Coyotes, David Desharnais of the Montreal Canadiens and former NHL center Marc Bureau. It's something Bergeron takes pride in, and it shows.
"He's flexible, and he gets really low on his stick and he's really strong so he uses his strength sometimes," said Washington Capitals forward Keith Aucoin, who was a linemate of Bergeron's with Providence (AHL) in 2004-05. "He's smart, and he also lifts his stick and lets you go through and then grabs the puck. So I think it's repetition, it's strength and it's obviously just getting used to other guys knowing what you're doing out there."
Bergeron is a faceoff tactician, and the Caps know they need to pay attention to that aspect of his game during this first-round series. But it's not like his success is any kind of a secret.
"He's a tremendous player," Rolston said. "He's one of the best in the league, if not the best forward, in the league defensively, and he's great offensively. And the reason he might not have huge, huge numbers offensively is because he doesn't cheat."
Though his game has needed maturing, the Bruins' alternate captain always has had one intangible quality.
"He was a really young guy, but he was a good leader as well, and obviously you can see the way he is now. But that's something he's had since I've known him," Aucoin said. "He's a born leader."
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