Coming off a QMJHL title and a run in the Memorial Cup Tournament, there was a lot of hype surrounding Simon Bourque, and the hope was that he’d bring his steady game over to the AHL.
The transition to professional hockey is not an easy one by any stretch, especially not on defence where the learning curve is a bit steeper. With that in mind, it’s obvious just by looking at Bourque’s numbers that his adjustment year was not an easy one. It’s not entirely on Bourque; he struggled mightily, but so did every single defender in Laval this year to varying degrees.
In his junior days, Bourque was known for his playmaking and puck-handling abilities to create space for his teammates. He didn’t get many chances to show that off this year, but when he did it was a good glimpse at what the young defender is capable of.
Simon Bourque with an outstanding individual effort, sets up Michael McCarron for a shorthanded goal. pic.twitter.com/NAnikqKkmy— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 8, 2018
The above goal is Bourque at his best. He carried the puck out on his own while short-handed, transitioned into the offensive zone while drawing a defender, and still got a pass across to Michael McCarron for an easy tap-in goal.
The issue is that Bourque, for whatever reason, never truly showed off this part of his game with any regularity, whether it be due to the coaching or him not being able to reach that level consistently in the AHL.
It’s not hard to pinpoint one reason why Bourque struggled this year: he spent a good chunk of the year as a healthy scratch, then was immediately expected to play top-three minutes without any hiccups. He only played in 46 games, and while some were missed due to injuries, many of his absences were at the start of the year when he sat in the pressbox in favour of AHL-contracted blue-liners Stefan Leblanc and journeyman Éric Gélinas.
That’s no way to develop a prospect. When he did get in the lineup, his options for partners weren’t exactly the best to help him out either.
In terms of goals for and against, no one (save for Jakub Jerabek in the few games he played in he AHL) had a positive effect in terms of goal differential, and at a certain point that becomes indicative of the system in place. It’s clear the one in Laval wasn’t a good one.
After sitting out, Bourque played alongside any combination of Gélinas or Leblanc, and, needless to say, it was a failure. Bourque is trying adjust to the AHL game, and pairing him alongside two less-than-stellar defensive options didn’t help as the team plummeted down the standings. One major concern was always going to be his defensive game, and clearly it’s going to be a work in progress.
Some of that blame goes to Bourque, who is capable of better performances than this past year, but first and foremost he needs a system that encourages development and offers stability.
Even then, just three points in 46 games is hard to swallow when you see that his strengths are in the offensive zone. He wasn’t a first- or second-wave power-play guy — a situation in which he thrived in the AHL — so a small start might be giving him a chance there, especially now that Gélinas and Leblanc are likely gone.
The other factor is that next year the talent level around him should be much better, as hopefully an injury plague doesn’t strike the parent club again. Playing with more skilled forwards and a better partner will likely do wonders for the young blue-liner, and while it won’t solve everything, it should hopefully breathe some life into his offensive game.
He’s just 21 years old, and the old adage goes that it always takes longer to develop defencemen compared to forwards. Patience and time will be needed for Bourque going forward. There’s talent there, it just needs the right approach to bring it out.
With a new coach coming in next year, it’s a clean slate for everyone involved. Given some of the rumoured names that might be in line for the job, it bodes extremely well for not only Bourque’s development, but the team as a whole.