René Bourque being hockey's Jekyll and Hyde is nothing new

by May 28, 4:00 PM

At 32 René Bourque has played in 560 regular season NHL games, and another 26 in playoffs. Over those nine seasons he’s averaged a half-point a game, almost to the decimal point. CapGeek shows he’s earned $21.85 million to date for that steady contribution.

I played against Bourque in college, and I gotta say: did NOT see that coming, particularly in the context of great college players who didn’t crack the show.

It’s not that Bourque wasn’t on anyone’s radar or anything - he was a 6’2” 200-plus pound forward in college hockey (not the norm), and he led the University of Wisconsin in points that year with 36 in 42 games, but he was sort of lost in the shuffle there.

On his team was an electric young rookie named Robbie Earl who could skate at the NHL level as a freshman. HE was a handful. Tom Gilbert was a powerplay monster, and you didn’t want to go in the corners with Ryan Suter. They had bulldogs like Adam Burish and Jake Dowell, and their goaltender, Brian Elliot, was nothing to sneeze at.

Bourque checked all the boxes on a scouting list, but didn’t do anything exceptional enough to wow you.

Is he big, yep. (But not really that physical.)

Can he skate, sure. (But not enough to blow your doors off.)

Can he shoot, yes. (But from a school that just churned out Dany Heatley, meh.)

Can he handle the puck? Yeah, he doesn’t square it off or anything. (But he’s probably below average when compared to skill guys in college.)

Does he have hockey sense, vision? Yeah, he’s got a fair head for the game. (But he’s not exactly Adam Oates.)

Simply put, Bourque was streaky. I think we played him seven times that year, and twice he buried us. The other five, he may not have even played. Sometimes you’re told not to “wake” guys like that, but it didn’t matter with Bourque. His game at the time was purely offensively focused, and he either had the jump or didn’t - it was out of your control.

Bourque played for a far superior college team (University of Wisconsin) than I did (University of Alaska Anchorage), but we managed to sneak by them in playoffs thanks in part to lucking into his “off” version.

Bourque was the version of himself his coaches fear. When he and his team should’ve been making a desperation push, he simply couldn’t muster it. It’s a weird glitch in his otherwise great game. That was supposed to be his team.

At the NHL level, it’s more or less carried over. We’ve seen the difference when he’s engaged and when he’s not. When he’s in faces, when he’s in puck battles, when he’s at the front of the net, Bourque is a valuable player even when he’s not scoring. That’s something he added to his game at the pro level, but it still doesn’t always come out. It seems to be tough to coax out of him, I think in part because deep down, he just wants to score goals.

Bourque frustrates fans and coaches, because I think they could live with the occasional hot streak if he stayed engaged when he wasn’t streaking. But he mostly seems unable to make that adjustment.

Despite running hot and cold, he turned his assets into a nice NHL career and cashes the nice paychecks that come with that. Sometimes, like in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, or the first round of playoffs, we get a taste of what he can do when the switch has been flipped the right direction. He can be a wrecking ball, a force. When he’s off, he sleepwalks.

If you have a guy like Bourque on your third line making $3.3M against the cap as the Canadiens do, you’re doing just fine. That’s a nice little bit of “maybe” punch down lineup. If you expect him to do more, you might be in some trouble.

In his current role, anything he brings offensively in playoffs is a huge bonus, which makes a hat-trick in an elimination game monumental. On Tuesday, Bourque was on - the Habs would sure love for some of that mojo to spill over to Thursday.

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