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Canadiens assign forward Rene Bourque to AHL

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The criticism of Rene Bourque has always come with a caveat.

That toolbox.

The 6-foot-2, 214-pound frame, the quickness, the shot, all of it says "NHL power forward," and because that is such a rare commodity Bourque's shortcomings have often been tolerated for longer than they would for most players.

On Monday, however, the Montreal Canadiens ran out of patience.

After clearing waivers at noon Monday, Bourque was sent to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League by the Canadiens after he got off to a tepid start to the 2014-15 season.

With no goals, two assists and a minus-9 differential in 13 games, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien made Bourque a healthy scratch the past two games, and Montreal won both of them with rookie Jiri Sekac taking Bourque’s spot alongside Lars Eller and Brandon Prust and energizing the third line.

"We believe that we gave him an opportunity. He was having a hard time to find his game," Therrien said Monday. "The biggest reason why the organization decided to send him down to Hamilton is to try and find his game back, the way he's supposed to play. We're not closing any doors, but he needs to go out there and perform the way he's supposed to perform.

"It's not a question of confidence, it's a question of results. That's always what counts in this business."

Bourque has a salary cap charge of $3.3 million according to capgeek.com in the fifth year of a six-year, $20 million contract he signed with the Calgary Flames. If Bourque spends the rest of the season in the AHL the Canadiens will save $925,000 against the salary cap. Bourque’s actual salary for 2014-15 is $2.5 million, and he will continue to be paid that salary in the minors.

Bourque had a difficult time last season as well, scoring nine goals with seven assists in 63 regular-season games, but that tantalizing toolbox came out at the perfect time. When the Stanley Cup Playoffs began there was some question as to whether Bourque would even be able to crack Therrien's lineup. He not only did that, Bourque led the Canadiens with eight goals and paired with Eller to become two of Montreal’s most important forwards in an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final.

The power forward everyone has always seen in Bourque finally manifested itself for the first time since the Canadiens acquired him from the Flames on Jan. 12, 2012.

"If eventually he finds his game, his intensity, his passion like we saw last year in the playoffs, he's a player who can help a team, who can help us," Therrien said. "That's what we were looking for from Rene Bourque at the start of the season, we wanted him to build on those playoffs. We had hope. But we didn't see it."

Therrien placed Bourque back on a line with Eller right from the first day of training camp in an effort to rekindle the chemistry they had last spring, but it never happened, and Eller’s game also suffered as a result. Bourque and Eller were given difficult assignments against tough competition, a factor that helped lead to the poor minus-9 rating they both had playing together, but the lack of production was still striking compared to what they showed in the playoffs.

"I think this game is so psychological, it's so mentally tough," Eller said. "Six months ago we all saw how great a player he can be when he's on. It's not like he’s injured or getting old. Whatever it is, and this goes for everybody, I really believe it's all in your head."

In 141 regular-season games in a Canadiens uniform, Bourque scored 21 goals and 39 points. In his final full season in Calgary prior to the trade that brought him to Montreal, Bourque scored 27 goals in 80 games, or six more than his entire time with the Canadiens.

Whenever it appeared Bourque was playing himself out of the lineup, however, he would come up with a big game and go on a little streak.

That toolbox would show itself and save him.

"For any hockey player, you want consistency," Therrien said. "You want to see game after game that's he able to perform well, you want him to be responsible on the ice, and you can build off of that. We didn't always get that, so we had to make a decision as a result."

Bourque taking up a spot in the lineup was one of the factors that led to Sekac, 22, being scratched for seven straight games. After coming back to the lineup in a 2-1 shootout win at the Buffalo Sabres last Wednesday, Sekac was a major factor in every member of his line getting two points apiece in a 4-1 win against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday.

"You can't have your young players wasting their time," Therrien said. "We felt enough was enough for Jiri. He can practice all he wants, do work in the video room, at a certain point he needs a chance to show what he can do."

Bourque will also need to show what he can do in the AHL if he wants to get another chance with the Canadiens, but he has a big advantage over most of the players he will be playing with and against.

Bourque has an NHL toolbox, something few players in the AHL possess. He will just need to prove he has the desire to use it on a more regular basis.

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