Edmonton Oilers

Evan Bouchard Blossoms: Tracking the growth of the Oilers defenceman

For fans of other teams around the league, Evan Bouchard may be a bit of an unknown. For Oilers fans, the ascension has been long awaited, perhaps even overdue. Yes, this playoffs have shown us a truth to which we were all already quite privy to: Bouchard has finally arrived as a top-four defenceman.

In a brief retrospective, let us retrace the steps Bouchard has undertaken in this process, ending with an appreciation to the player before us, and what that means to the Oiler current playoff chances. What does Bouchard’s arrival mean for the Oilers going forward, on the ice and on the proverbial books of the salary cap. All stats explored are from MoneyPuck.com.

Bouchard’s 2021–22 season

RankLineMinutesGamesxGoals %xGoals ForxGoals AgainstxGoals For
Per 60 Minutes
xGoals Against
Per 60 Minutes

As much as it has been a slow burn getting to this point, with the clock starting as soon as  Bouchard was selected eighth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, several key metamorphoses have occurred in the recent years and months. Bouchard spent his time dominating the OHL, followed by his time in the press box, before being paired with veteran Duncan Keith  of last season.

In what was a de facto second pairing, Keith and Bouchard managed to see the Oilers to a Western Conference Finals appearance, though it must be conceded that Brett Kulak and Tyson Barrie might have been just as effective as Keith-Bouchard. 

We can see that the Keith-Bouchard pairing did fairly well by expected goals, but did so as a higher-event pairing than Kulak-Barrie—ultimately giving up more chances against. 

It should also be noted that a Darnell Nurse pairing with Bouchard was phenomenal, but this duo was used fairly circumstantially, with late-game offensive situations where score effects would dictate the Oilers would be controlling the play regardless. 

Bouchard in the 2022 playoffs

RankLineMinutesGamesxGoals %xGoals ForxGoals AgainstxGoals For
Per 60 Minutes
xGoals Against
Per 60 Minutes

In the 2022 playoffs, the Keith-Bouchard duo performed best out of the Oilers main defence pairs. Again, they did not fare quite as well as Kulak-Barrie from a defensive standpoint, but boasted the best offence by expected goals for. 

Nurse was playing through a torn hip that required offseason surgery, as he and Ceci were handed top assignments against the best offensive talents of the 2021–22 Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, and Colorado Avalanche. 

This clearly shows Bouchard’s offensive prowess. As a prospect, he profiled and produced as a potential top scoring defenceman, and even before the 2021–22 season, the phrase “Bouch Bomb” was firmly entrenched into Oilers lexicon. Headed into last offseason, Bouchard’s stock was way up, as his prophesied talent came to fruition with consistency. 

At this point in his career, Keith was far from his Norris-winning self. The defender became available as the Chicago Blackhawks’ dynasty faded into the past, if not into a legacy worse than that. After several seasons of depressed effectiveness, the Blackhawks got an impressive haul of trade assets in moving Keith to the Oilers, so much that the Oilers were criticised for paying too much for a player long past his prime. Despite this, Bouchard held his own as an NHL regular for the first time. 

Bouchard’s 2022–23 regular season

RankLineMinutesGamesxGoals %xGoals ForxGoals AgainstxGoals For
Per 60 Minutes
xGoals Against
Per 60 Minutes

A slower start to the season

Coming into the last year of his entry-level contract—and more importantly penned into a regular spot on the Oilers blueline—Bouchard was primed and expected for a big year. The Oilers got off to a lukewarm stat in the fall portion of the schedule, and Bouchard was caught in the slog. It did not help that the place Bouchard was likely to shine brightest—the top power play unit—was blocked from his grasp, with Barrie riding the units’ historic efficiency and his personal seniority to an extended tenure. 

Bouchard was still playing well, but once again in a smaller role than his supporters would hope for. There were, however, some results here that showed great promise within this start. As fall chilled into winter and defenceman Philip Broberg was called up from the AHL, Broberg and Bouchard were paired together. Though the duo would see third pairing minutes and somewhat sheltered usage behind Nurse-Ceci and Kulak-Barrie, the young pair of former top-10 draft picks proved that they could handle regular NHL minutes without a veteran presence by their side.

Opening 2023 with a bang

Together, Broberg and Bouchard helped see the Oilers to an outstanding start to 2023, with the team flying high through January and February. Perhaps their partnership was not the most heralded by Oilers fans, but as a pairing we could see in the future, their time together did quite a bit to their standing within the organisation. The offensively minded Bouchard had proven he could take care of himself defensively, and was ready for the responsibility of true top minutes.

It was at this point that Broberg and Bouchard’s paths deviated. Barrie was traded to the Nashville Predators in a package that returned Mattias Ekholm. On top of moving Barrie’s contract out, a contract that many across Oil Country bemoaned, the Oilers were able to add what might be their best defenceman overall in Ekholm. At face value this is a strong deal for the Oilers, though the context in which it affects Bouchard makes the deal even better.

Opportunities were earned and given

Essentially, Bouchard could not have been supported any more than the Oilers were able to. With Barrie gone, Bouchard ascended to the long awaited role on the top power play. Though Barrie was very effective here, it might not be too unexpected to say that the NHL’s all-time best power play could survive the swap, as one or two other Oilers are the real keys to the unit’s dominance. 

Bouchard was also afforded a much greater opportunity: an ideal defence partner. Ekholm excels in the areas that Bouchard does not and vice versa, as the pair exist in a close-to-perfect harmony. Ekholm brings physicality, checking, and experience, some ruggedness to the graceful Bouchard. While both are well rounded enough to contribute in all areas, their specialisations align nicely, giving the Oilers a pair that can handle anything the opponent throws at them.

At this point, Bouchard began to blossom in the eyes of the fans, but internally the Oilers were convinced that the player was ready to take this step thanks to what Bouchard was able to show with a partner less experienced than him in Broberg. Bouchard and Ekholm began to lead the Oilers pairs in ice time more frequently, easing Nurse, and more importantly Cody Ceci, into more manageable roles, if not supplementing them outright.

So far in the 2022–23 playoffs

RankLineMinutesGamesxGoals %xGoals ForxGoals AgainstxGoals For
Per 60 Minutes
xGoals Against
Per 60 Minutes

Through the first five games of this year’s series against the Los Angeles Kings, the Ekholm-Bouchard pairing has continued pushing for top pairing minutes. By expected goals percentage, they rank third of the Oilers common pairings through the series, a far cry from their regular season dominance.

At first glance this performance might be seen critically, but there are significant contributing factors to these results. The Ekholm-Bouchard pairing is being tasked with a tall order against a quality opponent. 

The Kulak-Desharnais pairing grades well here, but is doing so against weaker competition, as the Oilers depth has severely outplayed the Kings depth in the series so far. Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele have continued their control of expected goals, while double shifting Connor McDavid or Leo Draisaitl on the “fourth line” has been a potent tactic.

The Nurse-Ceci pairing has graded well here too, though Nurse has drawn criticism for his proximity to power play goals against in both losses in the series. With a cap hit over $9 million, Nurse is an easy target for critical eyes, but remains in contention for the Oilers’ top defenceman outright, even beyond the emergence of Ekholm-Bouchard. For Nurse, it has been a couple individual moments that mar an otherwise impeccable series.

For Bouchard, the individual moments paint a different picture. Bouchard has exploded with two goals and eight points through five games, tied with McDavid for second on the team in points. All of these points have come on the power play, where Bouchard is clearly at least as good as Barrie—either by equal skill or at least scoresheet contributions. 

Looking at Bouchard’s future

The lack of even strength scoring—combined with the depressed performance in expected goals percentage—might point to there being more in Bouchard’s future. Though Bouchard is already a good offensive defenceman worthy of top-four minutes, the potential for more is certainly in play going forward.

In the final year of his deal, Bouchard will be due a sizeable raise this summer. As an restricted free agent, Bouchard will not have much leverage in the negotiations, though it will be a delicate dance as the two sides try to balance cap hit and term on the next deal.

This is of little concern across Oil Country, at least for the time being. Bouchard will be a key piece of the Oilers power play (perhaps their biggest strength), and overall a vital cog to the operation against the Kings and beyond, should the Oilers find a way to close out this first round series.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

Leave a Reply

Back to top button
%d bloggers like this: