Rene Bourque is Habs' multi-million dollar question

In his two-plus years in Montreal, Rene Bourque has failed to blossom into a top-flight player. Now the Canadiens must decide whether it's time to cut ties with the disappointing forward, writes Radio-Canada's Guillaume Lefrancois.

Montreal must decide whether to keep or buy out winger

Winger Rene Bourque, left, has posted disappointing scoring statistics in his two-plus years with the Canadiens. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

With the NHL trade deadline more than a week behind us, we now have a clearer view of the decisions teams will have to make in the off-season.

Judging by the players wearing Canadiens jerseys Wednesday night, and those wearing a jacket and tie, Habs capologist John Sedgwick, who's been GM Marc Bergevin’s right-hand man for a little less than a year, will have an interesting question to answer: Should he give winger Rene Bourque a $3.67-million US check on June 15 to buy out the remaining two years of his contract?

For the fourth time this season, Montreal head coach Michel Therrien made Bourque, 32, a healthy scratch on Wednesday. In the salary-cap era, sitting a player who counts for 5.2 per cent of your payroll doesn’t exactly spell success.

Bourque’s tenure in Montreal has been downright disappointing. After piling up eight points in 38 games after being acquired from Calgary on Jan. 12, 2012, he showed signs of life in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, was slowed by a concussion, and came back to play decently in a playoff series against Ottawa.

This season, the Lac La Biche, Alta., native has missed 10 games due to injuries, and posted a meagre 12 points in 53 games. In 118 games with Montreal, he has totalled 20 goals, 13 assists and 33 points, and carries an annual cap hit of $3.33 million. 

If one thing plays in Bourque's favour, it’s definitely his size. At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, on a team with four forwards who stand under 5-foot-10, he’s one of the Canadiens’ biggest bodies. Up front, only George Parros is heavier. But does being big make Bourque a physical threat? Not every night. And that's the problem.

The decision

Notwithstanding the salary cap, buying out Bourque’s last two years seems to be the logical option for Bergevin. The numbers, however, don’t tell the same story. Let’s play armchair GM, just for the heck of it.

According to capgeek.com, the Canadiens have 15 players under contract for next season at a total of $46.63 million.

The price tag for Bourque’s buyout — counted under the cap — would be $1.67 million for the first two years and $833,333 for the next two. Should he be bought out, it would drop the team's totals to 14 players and $44.96 million. That’s the part we know. However, there's a lot that isn't known, such as:

  • Next season’s salary cap: Projected at $71 million in December, it might end up being slashed by “a million or two,” said commissioner Gary Bettman at this week’s meetings of the league's GMs. One NHL team executive said that a salary cap of roughly $70 million seemed realistic for next season, despite Kings GM Dean Lombardi mentioning $68 million as a possibility. Let’s use $70 million.
  • Subban and Markov: Among the 14 players on next season’s Habs payroll, the only defencemen are Alexei Emelin, Josh Gorges and Jarred Tinordi. P.K. Subban is slated to be a restricted free agent, and the price tag for last year’s Norris trophy winner looks to be no less than $7.5 million per year. Then there's Andrei Markov, who eats up 25 minutes of ice time per game and whose 38 points place him in a tie for 12th among NHL rearguards. His current contract counts for $5.75 million on the cap.

A combined total of $13.5 million for Subban and Markov seems reasonable, though it could go higher. Should Markov sign elsewhere, you'd have to think Bergevin will look for a player who can log the Russian’s 25 minutes. This will not come cheap.

That $13.5-million price tag brings the team’s payroll to $58.46 million for 16 players. For a 23-player roster, that leaves $11.54 million for seven more skaters. That’s an average of $1.65 million per player, with multiple holes in the top nine: Thomas Vanek, Brian Gionta (both unrestricted free agents), Lars Eller (restricted) and, of course, Bourque.

If you don’t buy Bourque out, you’re left with $9.87 million for six more skaters, and the same average of $1.65 million per roster spot to fill. However, that’s one more body in your top nine, and if Bourque plays like he did in 2013, he would make for a decent option on the third line.

As analyst Dany Dubé once put it — and he wasn’t referring specifically to No. 17 — you’re sometimes better off with the problem you know than with one you don’t. And if Bourque's production has been an issue, never have there been whispers of him causing trouble with management or being a dressing-room cancer. The same can be said for off-ice issues, none of which have surfaced in his case.

Could the status quo — at least, until June 2015 — be the way to go? Some fans might not like it, but it seems like it probably is.

This week’s numbers

23:12 — Defenceman Francis Bouillon’s ice time Wednesday against Boston. Despite being a healthy scratch in 15 of the previous 16 games, he ended up having the second-most ice time on his team, and was paired with Subban. Go figure.

41 — Number of games since winger Travis Moen’s last goal. The gritty forward is not expected to pile up goals, but Therrien justified scratching tough guy Parros against Boston by wanting to get offence from all four lines.

29th — Where Montreal ranks in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals. The Habs have only 100 such goals so far this season. Only Buffalo (81) has scored less, but being next to last to the Sabres is kind of like being last, isn’t it?