By Bob Crawford
Ryan Bourque’s work ethic, effort and tenacity have stood out from day one of his career with the Hartford Wolf Pack, but until recently he has never been looked to as a source of consistent offense.
Bourque contributed six goals and 14 points in 69 games his rookie year of 2011-12 and then had eight goals and 15 points in 53 games last season. This year the son of Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque has already fired home ten goals and added seven assists for 17 points, with the season only just past the halfway point. His newfound offensive production began to blossom around the turn of the New Year, and recently he has thrived playing left wing on a line with J.T. Miller at center and Jesper Fast on the right side. That has been the Wolf Pack’s top offensive line as of late, and being expected to fill a major offensive role has made all the difference for Bourque.
“Going through the first half of the season, it was kind of a defensive role, and PK (penalty-killing), and still getting an opportunity here and there in an offensive role, but I think as it’s progressed, it’s quickly developed into kind of a two-way role,” Bourque said this week. “And I’m definitely relishing it, and trying to make everything of the opportunity I’ve been given.”
His two linemates, both of whom have been more well-known for their offensive potency throughout their development than has Bourque, have relished having his brand of hustle and desire on their left flank.
“His work ethic shows the most,” Miller said of Bourque. “He provides energy for our line, and there’s always kind of a positive vibe when he’s around. He’s pretty even-keeled, and obviously he’s been putting the puck in the net lately. He’s doing it all, really.”
“It’s been awesome,” Bourque said. “When you have the opportunity to play with two guys like that, it’s pretty simple out there. You’ve just got to get in on the forecheck, hustle and try and get in the right areas, because they’ll find you. Both of them have played in the NHL for long periods of time this season, and I think J.T., if he were in a lot of different areas in the league, he’d be in the NHL, he’s definitely that caliber of a player, and (Fast) is the same way. He’s just so quick, and he gets in there and he gets the puck and he wins his one-on-one battles in the corner. And he’s got the skill and the playmaking abilities to find you out there. When you’re playing with guys like that, you’ve just got to go in and work hard and you’ll have success, night in and night out.”
Gernander added, “He (Bourque) forechecks, so he gets in and creates turnovers, and puck recovery he’s been very good at. He just enables that line to have more puck possession, and allows them to use their skills more offensively.”
That element of forechecking is an interesting calling card for Bourque, as his small stature (5-9, 178 pounds) does not put him in the category of a typical crashing, banging power forward. Bourque is truly relentless on the forecheck, though, and tirelessly works the hard areas of the ice, often turning the tables on bigger defenders.
“I think that a guy his size can be extremely effective against bigger players, if he uses his quickness and he’s willing to get in underneath those players,” Gernander asserted. “If you stay on the perimeter, it often allows those bigger players to use their reach and their size to their advantage, but if you get right in their kitchen and you’ve got body position and leverage and you’re using your quickness, I think you can be even more effective.”
Bourque feels that both he and Fast, who is only slightly bigger than Bourque at six feet and 185 pounds, have been consistent in causing problems for bigger opponents.
“It’s definitely just trying to make the most with what you have,” Bourque said. “We’re both smaller guys, but we both have the assets of quickness. And we’re short in stature, but it’s not like we’re small in strength or anything like that. I think we have the strength that you need to play in this league at a smaller size, but with that quickness you need to go in the corners and enjoy winning those battles, and not be afraid to mix it up. And fortunately for me and Jesper, we share that quality, and if you can use your size to your advantage, it helps out a lot. You have the ability to be a little more slippery out there, and also to get lower on guys, and it almost makes it harder for them to be able to move you. So as long as you’re doing the right things and making the most with what you have, then I think that’s why we can have the success we have.”
Bourque’s success has always gone back to his consistent effort. He never takes a shift off on the ice, and, according to Gernander, his energy level is the same in practice as well.
“He tries to win every drill,” the Wolf Pack bench boss said, “or he’s first in line, usually one beat before the whistle blows. But that’s part of his makeup or part of his character, one of his assets that he can draw upon.”
For Bourque, that is a way to motivate both himself and his teammates.
“It’s not only the games that you’re competing in,” he said. “If you have a competitive attitude, you definitely want to make the players around you, and your teammates, the best that they can be too. And it’s not only that, it’s trying to be the best that you can be on a daily basis. I hate losing to those guys. Obviously I hate losing more in the real competition, but in practice if you can try and set those things in place, day in and day out, it’s not only going to make you better, but it’s going to make everyone around you better.”
Now that Bourque has latched on to a spot among the Wolf Pack’s top six forwards, the challenge now is to hang on to that role, and solidify the notion that he has turned a corner in his career.
“At this level, I definitely think it’s just that once you get that opportunity, once you get comfortable and are doing it on a daily basis, if you have the right attitude and work ethic with it, you can definitely fit in and make the most of it,” he said. “I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with it. At first it was kind of newer to me because I was doing things that I really haven’t done since Junior, but it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had as a pro, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
As far as those things that hadn’t been part of his role since his Junior days in the Quebec League, Bourque elaborated, “In some situations in the past, you’re always thinking defense first, but while still having that responsible attitude, and definitely that responsibility in your game, you can still try to take a few more chances because you know you’re going to have that leeway offensively. And sometimes when you make a read or two offensively it can definitely go in your favor, and if you have the hustle and the work ethic to get back if you do make a mistake, then that makes up for it a lot too.”
Furthermore, it’s not a situation of leaving one identity behind and assuming another. Bourque is acutely aware that being a diligent defensive player and a source of energy is what got him to where he is, and he has no intention of forgetting that, no matter how many offensive numbers he manages to put up.
“That’s something definitely that I’ll always carry with me, and I know I won’t ever leave that side of my game behind,” he said. “I think I’ve grown up being responsible defensively, with that work ethic, and I know that if I’m going to have the opportunity to play at the next level, it’s definitely going to be with those assets, with penalty-killing and the energy that I provide, and being responsible in both zones. And although I can chip in offensively, it’s definitely with the responsibility of being a very good defensive forward, but also having that offensive capability as well.”
That, clearly, is just what Gernander has in mind, as the organization continues to foster Bourque’s rapidly accelerating development.
“The offensive play is always a benefit, regardless of who the player is,” Gernander said. “We have to have some minimum requirements as far as forechecking, defensive responsibility, those types of things, but some excel at it, and I think he’s one that leads the way in those areas, as far as defensively responsible, penalty-killing, provide some energy, provide some forecheck. And now, I think with just a change of linemates or a little bit more offensive opportunity, you’re starting to see more output from him.”
“I still think his future as far as an NHL career will be more of a third, fourth-line guy, penalty-killer, and he still has to be diligent in all those tasks, but any time you can get someone from that portion of your lineup that can score goals when the opportunity presents itself, that makes him that much more valuable of a tool. He’s proving that, given the opportunity, he can be a significant part of our offense, and I think it’s been a great progression for him.”
photo credit: chris rutsch