Of all the skaters that laced them up for the Flames this past season, no player seemed to promise more while delivering less than Rene Bourque. After two excellent years following his acquisition from the Blackhawks, Bourque struggled virtually all season, finishing -17 and appearing to be full value for that number.
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When I went looking for specific on-ice circumstances that had changed for the Lac la Biche native, I wasn’t struck by any one thing in particular. Bourque had faced top-line comp for the third year running, had ZoneStart numbers that didn’t appear to be much different from 09/10, and shot about the same percentage on a personal level.
The chance totals compiled by Kent, however, showed a player that was bad news all around. Bourque finished the year at ES with 262 chances for, 300 against, for a percentage of 46.6. That’s right in line with his Fenwick (shots and misses) percentage of 48.1, and way off his performance of the last two seasons. We don’t have chances for both years, but Fenwick shows a pretty reasonable correlation to scoring chances as a rule, and Bourque posted a 52.2 Fenwick % in 08/09 and 51.2% in 09/10 facing somewhat tougher Zone Starts. Entering last year, Bourque was being counted on to manage hard minutes for a team dearly in need of such a player.
What ensued in 10/11 was a significant disappointment. Rene Bourque, rather than being the hard-minutes producer we’d gotten used to watching, was now a sinkhole from which other players couldn’t escape. The chart that follows shows the EV chance totals for the other primary forwards on the Flames, then the totals with and without Bourque. Read ’em and weep:
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(Special thanks to Oilogisphere regular Quain for the spreadsheet formula that produced the WOWY numbers)
Those numbers were not optimal. Very bad, actually. He didn’t help one player improve. The Flames absolutely needed Bourque to carry the mail against the best of the opposition, especially with Daymond Langkow shelved for all but four games, and instead received a dud of a season. There’s no way to sugar coat what happened. Rene Bourque was likely, relative to what was expected and required of him, the worst of all the significant Flames skaters, and second worst wasn’t even within hailing distance.
The only bit of daylight I can note is that Bourque didn’t seem to hurt Olli Jokinen that much, and given that the duo likely faced pretty stiff comp when they worked together, that might be something that the boss keeps in mind next fall. On the other hand, if Matt Stajan is still around, I think that those two might be encouraged to keep their distance. I don’t doubt that Stajan likely faced tougher opposition when he was alongside Bourque, and there’s no independent evidence Stajan can manage against the big boys, so that might well have been a mutual disaster in the making.
I suspect that the primary reason that Bourque’s overall chance numbers and outshooting percentages slid into the red was his forced separation from Daymond Langkow. 22 is a pretty useful guy to have on your side, and the two of them formed a nice partnership in the two previous seasons. They had Todd Bertuzzi and Nigel Dawes as linemates more nights than not those two years, so it wasn’t like they had high quality help to boost them, either. If Joker was the best all around center on the club last year, and he likely was, maybe it isn’t such a shock that Bourque’s best chance numbers were with the Finn in the middle.
That likely speaks to a greater point surrounding the franchise. The Flames’ best club since the lockout was that 08/09 team, largely because Bourque and Langkow could manage against the toughs, leaving Iginla and Cammalleri a clean run at second liners and Conroy, Moss and GlenX nothing but bottom feeders. Until Bourque and Gio were injured in February of ’09, that team was good enough that it overcame Kipper playing like hot garbage to be about 20 games over .500 heading into the stretch. They’ve never quite been able to match that sort of overall forward depth since, and they haven’t really had a clear line to take on the better players since Langkow was felled in St. Paul.
As for Bourque himself, I won’t discount the possibility that he might still have some lingering effects from past injuries, or that he might have suffered from a bit of complacency after scoring a nice contract, but to be honest, I suspect that the biggest factor undermining him was the quality of the club’s middlemen. Calgary employed a lot of centers, none of whom had any history facing top-liners with any level of success, and that left Bourque without any trustworthy help. There really aren’t that many players other than maybe Sid Crosby that can play high end competition one on three and survive, so Bourque’s fall in the absence of Langkow seems easier to understand in hindsight .
That noted, Bourque still had a forgettable season, and if the Flames harbour any hope of getting back to post-season play, he needs to be better, irrespective of who his center might be on any given night. With all the UFAs on the team, this will likely be the last year for the current group, and even with his long term deal, if Rene Bourque is to remain a Flame beyond next spring, he has to get back to his previous form, because a continued slump might well mean he gets the boot as part of a greater purge.