BOSTON (CBS) — Tuesday was Chris Bourque’s 27th birthday. He had a chance to make it unforgettable, chosen by Claude Julien as the fifth skater in a long shootout at home against the New Jersey Devils. Bourque took the puck, skated to the right side toward goalie Johan Hedberg. The lefty faked a forehand bid before dragging to his backhand and attempting to flip the puck over Hedberg’s glove. Herberg just got a piece of it and deflected the shot wide.
And as Bourque skated to the bench, boos from Boston fans rained down on him.
Granted, the boos didn’t come from the majority of the 17,565 fans in attendance, but despite the fact that Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton and David Krejci also failed to score on their shootout attempts, it was Bourque who bore the brunt of Boston’s frustrations. It was a little unfair, and it was more than a little ridiculous.
In fact, the entirety of Chris Bourque’s Boston career — all two weeks of it — has been received rather coldly by Bruins fans. Every night on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Adam Jones fields a handful of calls from angry fans who think Bourque is a bum, or think he gets preferential treatment because of his last name, or think “this kid has to go!”
Of course, those who booed at the TD Garden and those who call in to yap on the radio don’t necessarily represent the majority of Bruins fans, but for a fan base with a reputation of occasionally going overboard with the grumpiness, their actions nevertheless paint an ugly picture of the local sports landscape.
Chris Bourque is not the problem. In fact, for a Bruins team that is 5-0-1 to start the season, there really aren’t any problems. But if you absolutely had to make a list of problems, Bourque wouldn’t get top billing.
Bourque, a player with a grand total of one goal and three assists in 39 career NHL games, is playing essentially like he should have been expected to be playing. And it’s not just points that Bourque doesn’t put up at the NHL level, as he has just 39 total shots in those 39 games.
Despite that history, perhaps many fans were expecting to see a new-and-improved offensive machine in Bourque, based on his AHL stats the past two years. Last year, he scored 27 goals and assisted on 66 more for a 93-point season for the Hershey Bears, and in 32 games with the Providence Bruins this season, he posted 8-20-28 totals in 32 games. Still, to raise expectations based on AHL output would be irrational, especially when the player hadn’t even skated in an NHL game for 23 months before suiting up for Boston 12 days ago against the Rangers.
And make no mistake about it: Bourque hasn’t been very good. He’s yet to tally a point, he’s gotten just three shots on net, he’s a minus-4, he’s 0-for-2 in shootout attempts and he’s seen his ice time dip to 10:30 in Carolina and 9:55 against New Jersey. On Thursday night, he won’t even play, with the bigger Lane MacDermid getting inserted into the lineup for a potential fight-filled contest against the Sabres.
It hasn’t been good, but it’s not as if he’s the only member of the third line struggling in the early going. Chris Kelly has just one assist and a minus-3 rating — including a bad defensive zone turnover that led directly to Carolina’s tying goal on Monday night — while Rich Peverley is a minus-4 and also has just one assist.
Yet, nobody is calling the radio to get those two guys out of town, and nobody’s raining boos down on the ice. Nor should they, because Kelly and Peverley have proven over the past season and a half that are solid, reliable and clutch third-liners. They’ll come around and get back to their normal selves at some point, and really, there’s no better duo to help Bourque along than Kelly and Peverley.
And it doesn’t take a very big history book to see an adjustment period when it comes to joining the Bruins’ third line. Last year, Benoit Pouliot signed a $1.1 million contract with the Bruins (exactly twice as much money as Bourque makes, if you care about such matters) and registered zero points and a minus-3 rating in his first eight games with the team. He ended up with 16-16-32 totals and a plus-18 rating, so suffice it to say, things turned out pretty well for him.
Bourque’s yet to register a point, but his shot on net Tuesday night was perhaps the Bruins’ best scoring chance of the first 55 minutes of the game. While he may not be a player with Pouliot’s skill, and while he’s definitely not on Michael Ryder’s goal-scoring level, it’s much too early to bury him and his chances this season.
“I wouldn’t necessarily overanalyze it that way more than I think he’s playing better and better, the numbers aren’t there,” Claude Julien said prior to Tuesday’s game. “I think he’s gaining confidence. For some of those players, you need to get that first goal, first couple of good situations to feel better and more confident about yourself. But, certainly not disappointed. … I think you have to be a little bit more patient with [the third line].”
Bourque won’t play Thursday night, but he will almost assuredly be back on that third line Saturday night at Toronto, and he’ll be on that third line next Saturday when the Bruins return home to face the Lightning.
There’s no question that fans have the right to be frustrated with anyone they like. They can scream “Shoooooot!” from the balcony during another fruitless power play, and they can (and do) boo the team off the ice after an uninspiring period.
But booing Bourque and calling for a replacement this early into the season, when the Bruins are rolling along as one of four NHL teams without a regulation loss? That’s just unnecessary.