The road to being a starter in the National Hockey League is often a bumpy one for players of any position, but especially for defensemen. There is a steep learning curve to navigate, and one of the biggest challenges for young players who are to dominating at the junior hockey level is learn from adversity early in their pro careers and emerge a better player from the experience.
Flyers defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon can attest firsthand to this painstaking process.
A year ago at this time, the St. Hyacinthe, Quebec native was coming off a difficult second pro season. Bourdon hoped to gain an opportunity to earn his first call-up to the NHL after being concerned that his career moved in the wrong direction the previous season, in which he was demoted for a time to the ECHL.
“Sometimes in hockey, things don’t go your way, and things weren’t going my way,” recalled Bourdon. “There were guys on the Phantoms playing more than me, and [the organization] thought it was better for me to play in the East Coast League for awhile. At first, I felt like I was going backwards. But I knew I had to bounce back from it. I had to learn from it, and I couldn’t give up.”
Rather than panicking or wallowing in self-pity, Bourdon approached the 2011-12 season as an opportunity for growth. He worked hard on all aspects of his game, and improved at a rapid clip. With the Flyers’ defense racked by injuries, Bourdon got his chance.
On Nov. 21, the Flyers recalled Bourdon and fellow Phantoms defenseman Kevin Marshall. Although Marshall’s stint with the big club was brief (he was subsequently traded to Washington for Matt Ford), Bourdon made the most of his opportunity. Bourdon earned a regular starting job with the big team and spent most of the remainder of the season with the big club.
“Cato helped me a lot, along with the other defensemen,” said Bourdon, referring to assistant coach Kevin McCarthy. “He helped make sure my confidence was high. If I made a mistake, he’d tell me not to worry about it, and [Peter Laviolette] would send me out there on my next shift. I felt like the team had confidence in me, and that was a great thing for me.”
“It took maybe about five or six games to adjust. I knew I had the tools to do it, but other guys also have the tools and it doesn’t work out. The speed was faster in the NHL, but I felt like I could deal with it. I worked on my foot speed with Cato all year, and I tried to make decisions faster. Mostly, I just tried to do my job, and do good work defensively. When they sent Marshall down, and I was I still there, I felt like I was on the right track. I felt like I could show I belonged at this level and help the team.”
Unfortunately for Bourdon, the latter portion of his NHL rookie season was interrupted. After starting 38 of the team’s 39 games played between Nov. 18 and Feb. 18, including 33 games in a row, Bourdon was temporarily re-assigned to the Phantoms.
Bourdon returned to the big club on March 27 and finished out the year with some of his best hockey of the season. He started each of the final six games of the regular season, during which time he scored a pair of goals and posted a plus-three rating while averaging 17:42 of ice time per game.
Before Game 1 of the Flyers’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series with Pittsburgh, Bourdon learned just how much faith the Flyers’ coaching staff had in him. He earned a spot in the starting lineup, while veteran Pavel Kubina, a former All-Star defenseman and veteran of a combined 1,021 NHL regular season and playoff games, was a healthy scratch.
“That was a big thing for me,” said Bourdon. “I felt like I deserved my spot, and they chose to put me in ahead of him. I was really eager to get in and play.”
Bourdon’s NHL playoff debut didn’t go as he’d hoped. He played 15 mostly error-free shifts in a game in which the Flyers trailed 3-0 and came back to win in overtime. Unfortunately, Bourdon got re-injured and was knocked out of the game. He was unable to play – or practice – again for the duration of the playoffs. The rookie watched from the sidelines as the club defeated Pittsburgh in six-games before losing in five matches to the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the playoffs.
“That was an unfortunate time to get hurt,” Bourdon said. “But that’s just part of the game. I’ve been feeling totally fine for over two months and I’ve been training every day. I feel really eager to start again for next season.”
This time around, however, Bourdon won’t be satisfied merely to play games in the NHL. The soon-to-be 23-year-old defenseman wants to take the next steps in his development, and come as far in 2012-13 as he did over the course of last season.
“I think last year was a real good learning season for me,” he said. “I tried to keep things pretty simple, and take care of my job in the defensive end. Now I want to make more of an impact. I’m not just hoping to play, I want to help make good things happen for the team. I feel confident that I can do that.”
There are two facets in particular where Bourdon believes he has only scratched the surface of his abilities: physical play and offensive output. He was known both for his heavy shot and willingness to mix it up physically during his junior hockey days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He showed hints of both assets for the Flyers last season, especially at the end of the regular season, but acknowledges that he’d like to continue developing these areas at the professional level.
“My shot from the point and my puck-moving was probably my biggest asset in junior,” said Bourdon. “I still like to look for chances to jump up on the play when there’s a good chance to do it. But when I got to the pros, the coaches wanted me to focus on my [positional] defense first. I’ve worked on that, and I’m going to keep working on it. But I feel like I can contribute in different ways and be a two-way player for this team.”
The Flyers have had a tough off-season in terms of blueline injuries, with Andrej Meszaros being lost to Achilles tendon surgery and Andreas Lilja undergoing hip surgery. The team also lost Matt Carle to free agency, signed Bruno Gervais and acquired Luke Schenn in a trade with Toronto.
From Bourdon’s perspective, however, the sole focus is on taking advantage of the opportunity he will get to solidify the NHL job he won last season and gain additional responsibilities.
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