The Edmonton Oilers did a lot to their defensive group this past summer. They completely re-shaped the group, shipping out Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones and losing both Adam Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov to Seattle/free agency.
In turn, they decided to re-sign Tyson Barrie to a new deal, acquire an aging Duncan Keith, and dipped their hand in the FA pool by inking Cody Ceci to a four-year deal. That is three players to replace the four that they lost.
Funnily enough, the guy that is perhaps the most important in helping the Oilers offset their losses is the one that they relegated to the press box for most of the last season: Evan Bouchard.
Ever since he was drafted 10th overall by the Oilers in the 2018 NHL Draft, Bouchard has been among the most promising prospects in the organization. I mean, just take a look at how he performed with the London Knights in the OHL. The man was an absolute offensive juggernaut in junior, scoring 87pts in his draft year and following that up with 53pts in 54 games in his D+1 season.
He turned pro in 2019/20 when he spent the entire season with the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL. There he had an excellent rookie season and ended up becoming one of the team’s premier players notching 42 points from the backend.
The pandemic forced him to begin the following season in Sweden playing Sodertalje SK of the SWE-1 league. Once again, he proved to be an effective player producing 17 points in 23 games.
It appeared as though he was ready to take that first jump into an extended NHL look at the beginning of the 2020/21 NHL season as he showed well enough in camp to become a part of the team’s taxi squad. This is where things got...weird to say the least.
Instead of playing Bouchard regularly, the Oilers decided to relegate him to the press box for the majority of the season and refused to send him back to Bakersfield, where he would definitely get top-pairing minutes. He only got into 14 games all year and, despite looking fairly competent and producing points, he wasn’t able to stick with the club.
Now it seems the organization has done a complete 180 on the player. He is being touted by both Tippett and Holland as a player who has the potential to finish the year on the top pairing and is being heralded as one of Edmonton’s most critical players this upcoming season.
This is the storyline that Edmonton probably should have jumped on a bit earlier because what they have in Bouchard is very special. He is a fantastic player who can move the puck better than anybody currently on the team’s roster. He has such enormous poise with the puck for a player at this age and he is extremely patient in all three ends of the ice.
Of course, his offensive ability is obvious from his glitzy totals in juniors but the numbers don’t tell you the whole story. Bouchard may as well be a magician with his shots from the point. He has a knack for walking the line and finding the perfect shooting lanes to ensure the puck reaches the goalie or, better yet, the back of the net.
He also uses his patience to make precise passes out of his end and to forwards in the offensive end.
It isn’t all sunshine in Bouchard’s game. There is one area that is of a bit of concern and that is his skating. He hasn’t always been the fastest skater and he won’t be the type of defender making end-to-end rushes. This can also get him into a tiny bit of trouble when defending in his own end.
Yet, when you watch him play for extended periods of time it looks like his vision and hockey IQ work overtime to offset these weaknesses.
We have only seen Bouchard play in one preseason game so far and he was arguably the best player on the ice for either team. It might be a lot to ask of a 21-year-old defender to step into the NHL and perform right away but I have absolutely no doubt that Evan Bouchard will do just that and a bit more this season.