The dog days of summer are upon us, and we have precious few topics as Canadiens fans to whip ourselves into a frenzy over. With Shane Doan still hoping to stay rooted in Phoenix, and the trade market at a standstill, there are no controversies we can really sink our teeth into. Well, there is the negotiations between the NHL and the Players' Association, but that discussion usually degenerates into a pro-owners vs. pro-players shouting match, with neither side able to convince the other of the clarity of its arguments, and no real benefit, kind of like if a 'Blame-the-Captain' faction formed against a 'No-It's the-Iceberg's-Fault,-Dumbass' mob on the increasingly vertical top deck of the Titanic.
So we recycle never-ending controversies, bring up Ryan McDonagh and Pierre Gauthier, and revert to the old saw about how we have to get rid of Scott Gomez and Tomas Kaberle. While there is wisdom in unloading both of these albatrosses around our necks, especially the former now that Dennis Wideman happened, we still sometimes come across the argument that René Bourque is just as useless and just as much of a drain on the team's fortunes as the other two pariahs.
Fortunately, there is a contervailing opinion that René Bourque is signed to a reasonable contract for his usual production, brings size and decent skating and finish around the net, and should bounce back this season, especially if Erik Cole can perform the same magic he did when he mentored Max Pacioretty. Maybe he can learn something from the way Erik Cole plays with passion and drive.
While I’m optimistic that René Bourque will improve his play this season, we should accept that since he didn’t “learn something” from playing with Jarome Iginla, he will never be the player we hope he can transform into and the Flames dreamed he can be. He's also a different player than Erik Cole and Jarome Iginla too, he's not a flamboyant winger who'll carry the puck and score on the rush, but more of an Eric Dazé/Al Secord-type who is dominant because of his size, and can find room in front of the net to pot goals from close in. The comparison to Erik Cole or Max Pacioretty is inapt. He's even bigger than those two, but doesn't have the wheels they do or the hockey sense.
Let’s temper our expectations and think of him as a 20-25 goal scorer, who can chip in on the defensive side of the equation, as he did last season when he killed penalties, and provides a physical presence if merely due to his size, and occasionally by delivering a hit or dropping the gloves. He’ll never be a rah-rah Mike Keane type, an inspirational Erik Cole or Jarome Iginla type who dominates games, or a quietly efficient player who exudes leadership like a Brian Skrudland or Josh Gorges. He’s an introverted, streaky player who can be moody, but who’s never been seen as a dressing room distraction, he’ll mold in to whatever atmosphere is concocted by Michel Therrien and Brian Gionta.
If I'm Coach Therrien, what I do with him is whittle down his responsibilities and give him easy targets to focus on. I judge him on his behaviours on the ice during games, not his moods, his 'passion', his 'drive', and I tell him that. I pull him into my office at the start of camp and explain that during games, I expect him to play within the system, and be positionally sound, be where he should be. At the end of the game, if he did that, and he got two shots on goal, and delivered two hits, that's a win for him. That's it. Play the system, get us two shots and two hits. Focus on that. Don't try to do that cool thing that David Desharnais did two shifts earlier, or try to go off on a breakaway like Aaron Palushaj just did. Play the system, fire two shots on net, get two solid hits per game, and you'll have a successful season. Don't get down on yourself if the fans get impatient, or you go ten games without a goal, give us two shots on net, two hits. If you do that, we're all happy.
Another thing I do with René is I insulate him from the media and the fans to some degree. I explain that he's pulling his weight, doing everything we're asking for, that he's potting goals or that the goals will surely come, that he's working hard in practice and in games, he's killing penalties. I use the strategy that Expos manager Dick Williams used with his second baseman Rodney Scott and the media, and tell the reporters that it doesn't matter what his batting average is, he does a hundred other things well, I have my own book of stats on Rodney Scott and he's having a great season. That worked for the Expos and Mr. Scott, it shielded him from criticism, allowed him to play his game, let's do the same for Mr. Bourque.
Finally, I get Tomas Plekanec to be the on-ice tutor for Mr. Bourque. At faceoffs, he checks in with him regularly and reminds him of his assignment, or points out special circumstances, be it the clock winding down or the need to clear out the zone because of the long change. Tomas is a wily vet, he's smart, he can keep René focused, keep his mind on the game, reduce the noise and the amount of decisions he needs to make. If they're facing off agains the David Krejci line in the defensive zone, Tomas makes sure that René knows he's got Nathan Horton, and what he does if we win the faceoff, and what he does if we lose it. If the Bruins start doing things a little different, they have a chat about that.
Mr. Plekanec showed a little frustration last year near the end of the season, so it's important to get him onside, and make sure he understands that this isn't a burden on him, but an opportunity for leadership and something that could pay off for him too, if he and René can develop a rapport and kill penalties together, send each other off on breakaways. There's nothing wrong with having a big guy like that on your wing who has good hands and a bit of a mean streak. Tomas has worn the 'A' on occasion, this responsibility is well within his wheelhouse.
If the Canadiens give René Bourque clear assignments like this, clear deliverables, and hold him accountable for those, and understand that he's probably the kind of player who responds to the carrot rather than the stick, that while he's not a headsy self-starter but rather a capable role player who can be productive in the right environment, and if the fans can rein in their enthusiasm and not take his 27 goals from two seasons ago and round it up to 'thirty-goal potential', we can enjoy a good season from René Bourque.