On hockey

Bruins are in no rush

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 23, 2008
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Patrice Bergeron, concussed Saturday for a second time in less than 14 months, remained at his downtown condominium yesterday, surrounded by his parents, who drove down from Quebec City as planned Sunday to celebrate the NHL Christmas break with their 23-year-old son.

According to Bergeron's agent, Kent Hughes, the hard-luck center isn't likely to comment to the media for a few days, opting instead to spend a quiet week with his parents and hope that his all-too-familiar symptoms dissipate quickly.

"He's laying low," said Hughes, who spent time with Bergeron Saturday night, in the hours after the collision, and on Sunday, when Bergeron was released after overnight observation at Massachusetts General Hospital, "and I guess you could say he's probably frustrated."

Bergeron was in the midst of his 12th shift Saturday when he met up with the onrushing Dennis Seidenberg as Carolina defenseman lugged the puck through the neutral zone. Bergeron, whose season came to an end last Oct. 27 because of a Grade 3 concussion, looked active and sharp in his 31st game of the season Saturday, much more resembling his pre-injury form.

As Bergeron approached from Seidenberg's right, and Boston right winger Chuck Kobasew from his left, the 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound blue liner straightened his stance as he came to the red line. Bergeron, intent on trying to strip the puck, inadvertently drove the left side of his face smack into Seidenberg's padded shoulders. NHLers typically wear hard-shell padding on their shoulders, which not only protects their bones but also can serve to smack opponents.

"One of things [Bergeron] said to me was, "Geez, I felt it was my best game so far,' " recalled Hughes. "He just started to feel like he was getting into it. So something like this - mentally, physically, and psychologically - it makes the timing of it really tough, and I think that makes his frustration pretty understandable."

The Bruins confirmed Sunday that Bergeron suffered a concussion in the collision, which means he must miss at least a week, in accordance with standard NHL protocol. Based not only on his severe concussion last year, but also on the club's conservative approach in his return from that injury, it's highly unlikely he will suit up again until early January, at the earliest.

"Really, there is no way to gauge that, or predict," said Hughes. "With my experience with other clients, as well as Patrice, I've learned that it's impossible to predict the recovery process."

The hard-working Bergeron, after months on the sidelines last season, felt fit and was eager to return to the lineup as the April playoffs approached. However, noting that he remained 5-10 pounds underweight, and fearing how a second concussion in such a short span could impact his long-term health and welfare, Boston management opted to have him shut it down for the remainder of the season.

In the 2-3 weeks leading to Saturday's matinee, Bergeron's game appeared to have plateaued. He has scored only one goal since Nov. 1, amid the club's most successful run in decades. Following a win Dec. 12 in Atlanta, in which he chipped in with an assist, Bergeron was scratched the next night at the Garden, the club reporting that he had the flu after the night before playing a full workload (23 shifts/18:40) with no mention of illness. It's more likely that he was being told to rest, his overall game showing slight signs of fatigue.

Hughes, whose client list includes Tampa Bay superstar Vincent Lecavalier, noted that another client, Flames winger Matthew Lombardi, worked feverishly to return from a concussion in the spring of 2004 as the Flames prepared to face Tampa in the Cup finals. The Flames were eager to have the hard-working winger back in their lineup.

"He was doing work on the bike, taking all the tests," recalled Hughes, "and one day he seemed close, then he would feel awful the next day. That's the nature of these things. You just don't know. He looked so close at the time, but even then, the next season [during the NHL lockout], he needed almost the entire season before he could suit up again [for Lowell in the AHL]. Concussions . . . you just never know."

Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli will have no choice but to monitor Bergeron's progress while determining how to manage his roster and the intricacies of the salary cap.

Bergeron's cap hit is $4.75 million. Last season, holding out hope that Bergeron could return, Chiarelli opted not to "replace" the young center's salary, as allowed by the NHL's CBA. Such replacements are tricky fits in the best of circumstances, because once the injured player returns to action, a club close to the maximum cap figure ($56.7 million this season) typically will have trouble accommodating both players financially. A short-term fix can turn into a nightmare.

If the Bruins were to determine Bergeron will be out for months and not weeks, they could look to make a deal or sign a free agent, although skilled free agents are rarely available at this time of the year. The best of the bunch, ex-Leafs captain Mats Sundin, signed last week with Vancouver, for a $4 million bonus and $1.63 million in salary.

One of the few talented players still without a home, Brendan Shanahan, would come significantly cheaper. But Shanahan turns 40 next month, and though he's revered throughout the game as a team leader and outstanding locker room presence, he may be too much of a graybeard to fit comfortably and effectively into a very up-tempo Boston offense that leads the NHL in goals.

At this point, Shanahan's greatest use to Boston might be as a power-play specialist, bringing his 6-3, 220-pound presence to the front of the net on the man-advantage. Enticing, but at what price . . . and for how long, if Bergeron's head were to clear quickly?

Meanwhile, the Bruins continue to patch the lineup, both front and back. Key defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference remain sidelined with leg injuries. Rookies Matt Hunwick and Matt Lashoff have helped fill those voids, the slick-skating Hunwick evolving into a potential impact player, one able and willing to jump into the play in all three zones. Rare is it in today's hockey to see any defenseman rush into the attack at the offensive end, but the 23-year-old Hunwick has the legs and acumen - and the coaching staff's blessing - to do that on a regular basis.

Up front, Marco Sturm (knee injury) was placed on long-term injured reserve over the weekend, putting him out until at least mid-January. His absence, along with Bergeron's concussion, brought call-up Martin St. Pierre directly into the action Sunday night in St. Louis. Though small (5-9), St. Pierre did not look out of place, centering a line with fellow call-up Vladimir Sobotka and strongman Shawn Thornton.

Chiarelli, his club atop the Eastern Conference as it heads into tonight's game in New Jersey, has little reason to act hastily. The Bruins won't play again until Saturday night in Raleigh, N.C., the middle stop on a five-game road swing. The club's easy 6-3 win in St. Louis most likely points to keeping all the kids around, with management calling up, say, Martins Karsums (F) or Johnny Boychuk (D) if more relief is necessary.

"We're going to take the same approach we took with Andrew Ference when he went down, and subsequently Aaron Ward," said Chiarelli. "We're going to look to our depth first. I think that's worked out well so far with the two Matts."

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