Atlanta Thrashers 2005 first-round draft pick Alex Bourret got off to a bit of a slow start this season with the AHL Chicago Wolves. It took the right wing until Nov. 10 to score his first professional goal and he was even a healthy scratch as the coaching staff wasn’t getting what they needed out of him.
But lately, Bourret has finally started clicking. He has started putting up points in the last few weeks, and on Friday night against Omaha, Wolves Head Coach John Anderson thought the Quebec native played his first really complete game.
“At the start, he’s 19 years old and he’s coming to Chicago, a little bit of a language barrier for him. It was tough on him. I think he’s just starting to feel at home, starting to feel part of the team and I think tonight was probably one of his best games to date. So as long as we see the upward climb, then we’re happy.”
Bourret, who turned 20 in October, was out of the line-up with a groin injury from Oct. 24 to Nov. 4, and was scratched on Nov. 14, and again on Nov. 25 and 26. Anderson explained why he felt he needed to sit him out.
“A couple things. One was his defensive play and positioning,” he said. “I wanted him to sit up and watch certain people and how they play it. And then the other thing – he was almost like a deer in headlights. He was out there but just kind of moving with the flow instead of making things happen like he was tonight, chasing loose pucks down, second effort. You have to contribute to the team. Eventually you have to figure it out. And thank goodness he has.”
Bourret agreed that he’s now on an upward swing.
“Yeah, I think I play better every game for the last couple of weeks. At the beginning of the year I was not very good – nervous to play here and my first year. But now I play better.”
Bourret’s adjustment wasn’t anything Anderson hadn’t seen before in his 11 years of coaching.
“I just think it’s because he’s young and in a very new environment. In junior he’s the king of the hill, now all of a sudden guys are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter. You’ve got to catch up – it’s a learning curve.”
Bourret pointed to the environment as the biggest thing he had to adjust to, but it was the off-ice environment more than the on-ice one.
“Leave home and go to the big city, English people, and it’s tough for me. But now it’s more easy.”
Despite having played for two years in Lewiston, Maine in the QMJHL, Bourret still struggles a bit with the language. He and fellow Thrashers prospect Guillaume Desbiens, the only two French nationals on the team, had played against each other in the QMJHL and saw each other a little bit in the summers through some mutual friends, and became fast friends in Chicago. They even sit next to each other in the locker room. Desbiens is a year and a half older and played pro last year, so he knows the ropes a bit already.
But because Desbiens wasn’t told to get an apartment until later on in the season, Bourret shares and apartment with Troy Milam and Jordan LaVallee. LaVallee learned French while playing four years for the Quebec Remparts. Desbiens has been able to answer some burning questions for Bourret, but credits the 20-year-old American LaVallee for his role in Bourret’s transition.
“[LaVallee] speaks perfect French so I think Jordan helped him a lot more than I did,” Desbiens said. “But if he needs help, he knows he only has to ask and I’ll be there for him.”
Bourret agreed that LaVallee’s role has been huge.
“He helped me a lot. I didn’t bring my car for the beginning of the year. He took me everywhere when I needed to and he helped me with papers – pay my bills. It’s the first time I [live on my own]. It’s a good thing to speak French. It was very tough for me.”
Translation isn’t usually necessary, but simply chatting in his native tongue gives him a mental break. “Just talking sometimes helps,” he said.
Bourret grew up in St. Guillaume, Quebec, a village of 1000, many of whom are relatives. The Chicago metro area, home to over 9 million people, might as well be another planet. “It’s pretty big here,” he said in an understatement.
The most shocking thing to Bourret has been the traffic, which he experiences first-hand when he borrows LaVallee’s car. Soon he’ll be on his own though, with a Range Rover on order that will arrive this week.
LaVallee, a fellow rookie, has not had to struggle for ice time as Bourret has. But Desbiens, in and out of the lineup as a fourth liner, can relate to some of Bourret’s struggles.
“The first few games he was not playing a lot,” Desbiens said. “He didn’t know why because he was always used to playing a lot. He was kind of rattled about it.
“Now that he figured out why, he knows what to do in games to stay in the lineup. That’s what he’s doing right now and doing really well at it.”
Indeed, Bourret is getting more ice time and has eight points in his last eight games. But the winger said he didn’t feel disappointed by his start.
“Not really,” he said. “Every year I have problems to start, to score at the beginning of the year. I just need to work hard and I know it takes time. I was more disappointed by [being] cut at camp in Atlanta on the last day.”
Bourret was not really surprised he didn’t make the Thrashers roster, saying “Normally I was supposed to be here this year,” but the hard reality of being sent down right at the end after playing preseason games was a disappointment.
His groin injury (six games) has been his only injury this year, after a concussion suffered at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament caused him to miss the first half of Thrashers training camp. Even if he had been ready for the NHL this year, it would have been difficult to start the season with the team given how far behind he was due to missing half of camp. But still, it was a better camp for him than in 2005, when he was the target of Thrashers coach Bob Hartley’s ire for his poor conditioning.
So, down on the farm, it’s a year-long preparation for the next go-around. Asked what he needed to improve on, Bourret echoed Anderson’s assessment: “Defensive game – in my zone move the puck out, come back, work hard every game,” he said.
The deer in the headlights is no longer around. Instead, Bourret has been showing almost relentless pursuit of the puck as of late. He might start seasons slow, but he starts games quickly, often with a hit or a shot in his first shift. Well-known for his hitting in junior, the 5’9, 209-pounder has a talent for doing it in the open-ice, a lost art these days. A slippery and gifted passer, he has six goals to his 12 assists.
Playing on the Wolves second line with veteran Steve Martins and second-year pro Jared Ross, Bourret has seen time on the second power-play unit all season. His 18 points in 20 games makes him the fifth leading scorer on the team, and second among Wolves rookies behind 22-year-old Brett Sterling.
With just an even plus/minus rating on what is a very plus team, Bourret needs to pay attention to details — learn to support his teammates more effectively, things like taking away the boards and not passing to covered players, putting them in bad positions. Learning exactly how much time he has at the AHL level will help him get rid of the puck when he should.
But overall, he’s showing the offensive flair that got him drafted in the first round in 2005, 16th overall and that helped him score 114 points in 67 games for the Shawinigan Cataractes last year.
“He’s been a ghost out there some nights,” Anderson recalled of his start. “I was a little disappointed because I heard a lot of great things and I knew he could play better. Tonight was like a breath of fresh air. I double-shifted him tonight because he deserved it. That’s what I want to see in the future. As long as he plays like that, he’ll play a lot.”
With his adjustment period largely out of the way, and knowing now what he needs to do, the outlook for Bourret is a good one. He will just need to keep his play consistently high.
“This year I just want more maturity for next year and have a good camp next year in Atlanta,” he said. “Make some plays and next year is going to be a big year.”
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