By Rob Tychkowski
The Edmonton Oilers are the first to acknowledge there are no guarantees when it comes to prospect defensemen reaching their full potential. Defense is the hardest position in the game, and it takes years to fully master.
But they are convinced it’s not a matter of if Evan Bouchard blossoms into a top-four, puck-moving, right-shot blueliner who can quarterback the league’s best power play, but when. That time is not far off given the 21-year-old is expected to be a regular next season, and he’ll be given every opportunity to promote himself from rookie to impact player.
“He has a great future with our team,” said coach Dave Tippett. “We have to continue to grow and develop his game. We’re fortunate to have a good development system.”
There seems no doubt Bouchard is on the verge of a breakthrough. The only thing up for debate is how the path should be laid out – throw him into the deep end and allow his natural talent to take it from there, or pull on the reins a little until he leaves the organization no choice but to let him run.
The Oilers have been taking it slow – this is not the same regime that bungled the development of D-man Justin Schultz when he was 22 and wound up losing a valuable asset – but Tippett and GM Ken Holland both feel Bouchard’s trajectory is on track for 2021-22.
From there, it will depend on what the rest of the blueline looks like. If the Oilers re-sign Tyson Barrie or add another top-pairing puck-mover, or Ethan Bear takes a step forward offensively, Bouchard could be eased into softer minutes and less responsibility, which is a good thing for a young D-man.
If the Oilers can’t find a high-end, right-shot puck-mover, then the 10th overall pick in 2018 will be called on to help fill those needs. And there aren’t many who don’t think he can. In terms of offense, Bouchard is more than NHL-ready. He sees the ice like an seasoned pro, he skates well, has an excellent passing game and a unique knack for getting his point shot through to the net.
Throw in a poise and maturity, on the ice and off, that belies his age and it’s easy to see why the Oilers have such high hopes for him. He put up 36 points in 54 games as an AHL rookie in 2019-20, and had 17 points in 23 games this season while on loan to Sodertalje in Sweden during the COVID-19 shutdown. Not to mention, he chipped in two goals and five points in 14 NHL appearances.
Bouchard knows how to generate offense wherever he plays, so that part of his game is not a concern and will only get better with experience and confidence. Where he needs to improve is on the defensive side. He has enough offensive skill that some defensive shortcomings can be overlooked, but being a top-four D-man also means being able to shut down top-six forwards on the other team.
After a pair of first-round playoff exits, the Oilers are due for a longer playoff run and that’s where a young defenseman, if he isn’t solid in his own end, can be a weak link. So, ideally, Edmonton wants to keep him on the third pairing, cherry-pick his spots, get him some power-play time, and let him deserve more than he’s getting rather than giving him more than he can handle and then being frustrated by costly mistakes. Then, if he begins to flourish offensively, as expected, he makes an Oilers’ position of strength even stronger.
In terms of development this season, Bouchard spent most of it in purgatory. The Oilers were good down the right side with Barrie, Adam Larsson and Bear, so they didn’t need Bouchard. And with mandatory international quarantines and border closures, sending him to the AHL wasn’t appealing, either.
So, after starting the season on loan to Sweden, he spent most of the year on the Oilers’ taxi squad. It wasn’t a perfect situation, but the taxi-squad practice sessions kept him sharp and hungry, and the post-practice workouts with Oilers skating coach David Pelletier strengthened his power and agility.
“It’s tough, everyone wants to play, but you have to take advantage of what’s given to you,” Bouchard said. “I had a lot of time to work on the things I wanted to, specifically my skating. It was good to take advantage of that.”