There have been big expectations for Evan Bouchard ever since the Edmonton Oilers drafted the defenceman 10th overall in 2018. And with the Oakville, Ontario product finally getting a regular role this season, 2021-22 was when these expectations would finally begin coming to fruition. But no one expected Bouchard to be this good, this soon, in this fashion.
Bouchard was slotted onto Edmonton’s third defensive pair, but he’s one of only five skaters and just two defensemen on the Oilers, averaging at least 20 minutes of ice time through the team’s six games. His calling card has always been his offensive ability and his future was seen as Edmonton’s power-play quarterback. Still, he’s seeing more minutes on the penalty kill than anyone not named Darnell Nurse. And after spending most of the 2020-21 NHL season in the press box, it was expected there’d be some growing pains. So far, there have been none.
Bouchard Makes an Impact
At 5-1-0, the Oilers have one of the best records in the NHL, and Bouchard has played no small part In their hot start, which saw Edmonton win its first five games for only the fourth time in franchise history. The blueliner, who turned 22 on Oct. 20, celebrated his birthday early with a huge goal against the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 19, scoring in the third period to put the Oilers ahead en route to a 6-5 win.
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Bouchard also has a pair of assists to give him three points through six games and boasts a plus/minus rating of four, second on the Oilers to only to Leon Draisaitl.
A deeper dive into Bouchard’s stats reveals the greater degree of his contributions. Bouchard ranks first on the Oilers in Corsi (59.1%) and Fenwick (60.8%) percentages at 5-on-5. Additionally, he leads the Oilers with 12 blocked shots and is fourth on the team with 18 shots on goal.
Bouchard Learned From Watching
Bouchard only played in 14 of the Oilers 56 games during the 2020-21 pandemic-shortened season (and did not suit up during the playoffs), but rather than send the defenceman to the American Hockey League where he could see much more action with the Bakersfield Condors, the Oilers kept Bouchard in Edmonton.
This drew criticism from some who felt Bouchard should be playing regularly for the Oilers, but if he wasn’t going to get that opportunity, he should at least be getting game experience in the minors. It wasn’t invalid to fear that his lack of actual gameplay would stunt Bouchard’s growth, setting him back on the development curve.
But as it turns out, Bouchard may have learned more from simply being around experienced vets, practicing with all-star players, and watching their games up close, than he ever could have logging 20-plus minutes per game in the AHL.
During a media availability on Tuesday, Oilers coach Dave Tippett revealed that keeping Bouchard with the NHL club all last season actually was the defenceman’s decision.
“Well, if you ask Evan, and we asked him at points last year, ‘Do you want to go down (to Bakersfield) and play?’ he said ‘No, I’m doing fine right here,’” Tippett said.
So there’s a part of it that some guys would like to go down and freewheel and do it, he thought this was part of the education that he needed, and I think we’re seeing the benefits of it now.”
Looking to the Future
When the Oilers re-signed offensive-minded defenceman Tyson Barrie to a three-year contract in the offseason, the notion was that the 30-year-old Barrie could continue to run Edmonton’s power play for the next couple of seasons while Bouchard was groomed to take over as the Oilers point man eventually. Barrie was brilliant in that role last season, leading all NHL defensemen with 48 points and being a principal player in the Oilers No. 1-ranked power play.
Barrie, however, has been held without a point in four of Edmonton’s five wins and has not finished with a positive plus/minus in any game yet. Among Oilers who have played in every game thus far, Barrie ranks last in Corsi (43.3%) and Fenwick (39.8%) percentages at 5-on-5.
As Bouchard’s stock soars, there’s already been musings that the Oilers might have to take a bear position with Barrie and trade the veteran blueliner this season. But it’s still very early. And those aforementioned growing pains will probably come yet.
Nonetheless, Bouchard’s performance these last two and a half weeks has been a wonderful surprise for Oilers fans. His rapid progression following a season that was spent primarily on the taxi squad is an interesting example of the different ways a prospect can be developed.
Bouchard and the Oilers will next tangle with the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday (Oct. 30), a rematch from the Oilers season-opening win in Edmonton on Oct. 13.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.