WILMINGTON - Patrice Bergeron turns 23 two weeks from tomorrow, which makes him 364 days younger than rookie goalie Kevin Regan and just a month older than first-year forward Jeff LoVecchio, two of the fresh faces at the Bruins' development camp that kicked off yesterday at Ristuccia Arena.
But Bergeron, who will enter his fifth NHL season this fall, and 33-year-old teammate Manny Fernandez are the veterans among the youngsters this week, both having made the unusual but welcome request to share ice time with the prospects.
"I think it spoke volumes of both Manny and Patrice asking to take the step to want to come here," said Don Sweeney, director of hockey operations and player development. "They're eager. They're chomping at the bit."
For reasons outside their control - a careless check by Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones Oct. 27 left Bergeron with a concussion and nearly ended his career, while Fernandez arrived in a trade from Minnesota with a rickety left knee that was never right - 2007-08 became a forgettable season for the forward and goalie. They were both placed on long-term injured reserve, but they combined for more than $9 million of idle money in a league in which salary cap flexibility is a precious commodity. They pushed hard at the end to contribute, but they weren't ready to help a club that lost in the first round to Montreal.
This year, starting with this week in Wilmington, both natives of La Belle Province (Bergeron hails from Quebec City, Fernandez from Montreal) are hoping 2008-09 will be scripted in a different fashion.
"It's obviously going to be a step-by-step kind of thing," said Fernandez, who skated with Bergeron and Providence assistant coach Rob Murray for approximately an hour yesterday. "It's been a long time. But I want to get in there. I need to get in there."
Fernandez acknowledged that he experienced some discomfort in his knee in April while he continued his recovery. But he said his knee feels good, while his back, balky for parts of 2007-08, is also fine. Fernandez has been skating three times a week in Montreal, sharing ice time with NHLers Steve Begin and Mathieu Darche.
Bergeron has been symptom-free all summer and has been working out six times a week, mimicking the workouts he has gone through during previous offseasons.
"It does feel like routine," Bergeron said. "I've been working out like this every summer since I've been playing pro. The only thing that's different is that I started a little bit earlier."
The Bruins are hoping a healthy Bergeron can play behind Marc Savard as the No. 2 center, serving as a two-way pivot (possible linemates include Marco Sturm and Chuck Kobasew) who can produce offense and skate against top opposing forwards. Fernandez, once considered a top-10 goalie in the NHL by general manager Peter Chiarelli, is expected to challenge Tim Thomas as the No. 1 netminder.
During the offseason, teams often project certain numbers for their players based on their age, past performance, and development curve. The exercise, however, is nearly impossible to execute with Bergeron and Fernandez. Until the puck drops on 2008-09, it's impossible to predict whether Bergeron will perform with the same tenacity in the danger areas, how long it will take him to acclimate himself to the game's speed, or how his body will respond to a big-time hit.
Similarly, accurate numbers can't be projected for a goalie who hasn't faced an NHL shot while healthy in more than 18 months.
Despite the uncertainty about how much they can contribute in 2008-09, their bosses are expecting comeback years from both. Before free agency, Chiarelli classified Bergeron as an impact player, comparing the return of the center to a major signing. Once free agency opened, Glen Metropolit, Bergeron's fill-in during 2007-08, signed a two-year deal with Philadelphia. The Bruins also let steady backup goalie Alex Auld sign with Ottawa, signaling their comfort in watching Fernandez and Thomas compete for the big league slots.
That's because Bergeron and Fernandez are healthy and without limitations, the first and perhaps most important stage of their comebacks.
"Being healthy is going to be the first step," Fernandez said. "If you don't feel 100 percent, it's that much harder to do your job. I think being healthy in camp is going to help a whole lot. From there, I can just quiet down and play my game, hopefully."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.