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Draft Watch: Evan Bouchard is NHL-ready on defense

The London Knights blueliner already has a wealth of experience at the junior level and with his size and passing ability, the NHL will be calling soon enough

DALLAS – There is one certainty in this draft: Buffalo taking Rasmus Dahlin first overall. And conventional wisdom will tell you that Dahlin is also the most NHL-ready defenseman in the class. It’s a near lock he will be playing solid minutes for the Sabres next season. But a lot of teams need help right away, so who is the next-best case on the blueline? In terms of NHL readiness, it’s Evan Bouchard.

The London Knights rearguard has an October 1999 birthday, meaning he is one of the older first-time eligible players in the draft class. But that means he is also one of the most experienced.

“Elite hockey sense, elite passer,” said one scout. “He can make any pass and he always seems to do it at the right place and the right time. Has the best chance after Andrei Svechnikov to go straight to the NHL next year (among OHLers).”

And while the NHL is a marathon, not a sprint, there are a lot of teams out there who could use a solid young D-man with Bouchard’s skills.

Right now the only knock on him is a lack of explosiveness in his skating, though most scouts see Bouchard’s ability to slow the game down as a counterbalance to that. The fact he was named captain of the Knights in his draft year is another impressive feat for the youngster and one he does not take for granted: past captains have included Mitch Marner, Max Domi and Christian Dvorak.

“It meant a lot, especially coming from London, where you see the names that have worn the captaincy,” Bouchard said. “It’s a lot of responsibility and it shows that the coaches believe in me and that my teammates do as well.”

Bouchard’s OHL career could not have gotten off to a better start in London. He joined the Knights at an apex and won an OHL title and Memorial Cup in 2016 on a squad that also featured Olli Juolevi and Victor Mete on the back end – not to mention Marner, Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk up front.

As young as he was, Bouchard was there to soak up the lessons.

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“It gives you a winning mentality, really,” he said. “You see the stuff guys go through, the work they put in and how they do the little things right.”

This season was vastly different. Though the Knights came into the campaign with a very solid squad, it became apparent that Sault Ste. Marie was going to rule the West, with Sarnia and Kitchener not far behind. Not only that, but import Jesper Bratt surprisingly stuck in the NHL with New Jersey, while Mete stayed in Montreal. So in an uncommon move for this generation, the Knights sold off their elite veterans, with Robert Thomas going to Hamilton and Max Jones and Cliff Pu off to Kingston.

With London eyeing the future, Bouchard all of a sudden had even more on his shoulders than he already did and ended up leading London in scoring with 87 points in 67 games. London finished fifth in the conference and bowed out to Owen Sound in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

“It was different, but it was good seeing that side of things,” Bouchard said. “The coaching staff and management did a great job picking up young talent who will work hard and have a lot of skill, so I think it worked out for us.”

A big fan of L.A.’s Drew Doughty, Bouchard gets an extra kick out of the fact he sees the Kings star around town sometimes (Doughty is from London). Bouchard’s mission this summer is to get faster and stronger, but at 6-foot-2 and 191 pounds, he’s already got NHL size to build on. As for making the leap to the NHL right away, Bouchard believes he can do it.

“I think so,” he said. “Taking it one step at a time is the goal right now, then really get ready to turn heads at main camp.”

With the way Bouchard passes the puck, he’ll know exactly when those heads are supposed to be turning up ice anyway.