Heading into the season, Edmonton Oilers management believed Evan Bouchard would be the “X-Factor” on the defensive unit. He was expected to progress and take a bigger step forward. As head coach Dave Tippett noted, “The X-Factor was whether he could do it. He’s moving in the right direction,” (from, ‘Evan Bouchard Has Been Surprise of Oilers Early Going With His Ice-Time,’ Edmonton Sun, 10/26/21). The 10th overall pick from the 2018 NHL Draft patiently waited for his opportunity, and so far, he’s living up to his draft pedigree.
He was given more responsibility when the Oilers’ blue line took a hit with injuries to Darnell Nurse, Slater Koekkoek, Duncan Keith, and also without Cody Ceci due to COVID protocol. Bouchard is not perfect, and there are mistakes in his game, but he’s very young and not only climbing the depth chart but has become a very important piece of the backend.
What’s most impressive about Bouchard is that he ranks 22nd in points among defensemen with 15 while ranking 110th in power-play minutes per game. In comparison, his teammate Tyson Barrie ranks 9th in average minutes on the man advantage— producing two fewer points. With those numbers, a promotion to the first power-play unit is well deserved for the former Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Defenseman of the Year.
Bouchard’s Offensive Instincts
In the offseason, the Oilers re-signed Barrie to a three-year $13.5 million deal to much outcry. I argued that signing the player that led all defensemen in points last season was key, especially as an integral piece to the league’s number one power play. At the same time, many felt that Bouchard should’ve been given that role. Although, expecting a player — who at the time only had 22 NHL games under his belt – to jump in and be a difference-maker would be a tough ask. Instead, the team took the right approach and let the young defenseman grow his confidence first.
After 24 games, the “X-Factor” has delivered beyond expectations. He’s shown an ability to process the game at a high level and make smart plays. His crisp outlet pass is something the team has lacked since the days of a 32-year-old Chris Pronger rifling pucks up to Oilers forwards. Having said that, his superb puck distribution was on display against the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 27. Bouchard made a hard and accurate pass that landed on Jesse Puljujarvi’s tape, which sprung him on a breakaway to beat goaltender Robin Lehner.
Bouchard’s calling card since his days playing junior with the London Knights has been a hard and accurate shot from the point, and so far, he’s translated that skill to the NHL. He’s not afraid to use it either. In 24 games, he’s launched 57 shots on net, good for seventh on the team. He’s also scored two goals in his last four games: one off a good read to join the rush and finish a Connor McDavid pass, and another with a rocket of a shot from the blue line against the Seattle Kraken.
Teams must know the scouting report by now. However, if given a chance on the first power-play unit, Bouchard would become an instant weapon. The opposition would have no choice but to respect his shot, and in doing so, would have to rush to cover the lane to block it. That should free up Leon Draisaitl on the half-wall, and if the first shot attempt isn’t available, Bouchard can slide the puck over to No. 29 for an easy one-timer.
If Bouchard Succeeds on the Power Play, Barrie May Be Expendable
Barrie’s value to the Oilers depends on his ability to work the power play, but his 5-on-5 play is suspect at times. He also has a hard time containing bigger forwards, but not due to lack of effort. If Bouchard proves that he can man the point on the power play, it will make No. 22 expendable, and management could consider possible trade opportunities to help solidify their blue line for a long playoff push.
Last game against the Minnesota Wild, Barrie struggled to handle the puck on the power play and was guilty of overpassing on a prime shooting opportunity. As a result, he was bumped down to the second unit in favour of Darnell Nurse. The Oilers went 0-for-5 with the man advantage and, moving forward, this should create an opening for young Bouchard.
The Oilers are facing their first bit of adversity of the season. They’re winless in their last three games, and the power play has cooled off after a hot start. Adding Bouchard to the first unit would be a new look that can help the power play reach new heights and get the team back on track.
First ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – CBC Radio Oilers’ Fan Panel Analyst – Freelance Writer. Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.