Now that the draft and the start of the free agency period has come and gone, it is time to focus on some of the housekeeping issues that remain for the Edmonton Oilers.
The item at the top of the list concerns Evan Bouchard, who is set to become to the team’s full-time power play QB and top right-hand shot defender next season. The Oilers have qualified the restricted free agent and all signs point toward Bouchard returning for at least another season on a bridge deal. The only thing standing in the way of that is a potential offer-sheet, but let’s not muddy the waters too much here.
Let’s work under the assumption that the Oilers and Bouchard’s camp come to an agreement at some point this summer and the 23 year old gets his first real chance at being a top-end producer for an entie season on Edmonton’s blue-line.
What should we expect for Bouchard over the course of the 2023–24 season?
Looking back at what he has done so far
Bouchard’s NHL career has barely started, but the results have been impressive.
During his first full NHL season, he was able notch 43 points in 81 games while playing on the second pair with Duncan Keith. Most of his time spent on ice was at even strength, as Tyson Barrie was still the man on the power play. With consistent minutes in a top-four role, Bouchard was eclectic at generating offence at even-strength, scoring 31 of his 43 points while playing over 1300 minutes of even strength hockey.
It was a dominant rookie-year and one that showed exactly how much promise he had. Then hit the 2022–23 season—which didn’t start off as kind to Bouchard.
A rough start to the season by Bouchard, and the team by that matter, caused a bit of a roster shuffle by Coach Jay Woodcroft. Instead of leaning into his young offensive star and trying to unlock his potential, Bouchard instead found himself blocked by Barrie and was promptly sent to the third pairing.
Despite what you may think, considering how things ended last season, Bouchard’s most popular defensive partner for the 2022–23 season was Philip Broberg. The pair spent 333 minutes on the ice together prior to the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm, and while they were far from a terrible pairing, they weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire either.
When the trade deadline rolled around, the organization had a clear decison that needed to be made. It was either keeping Bouchard in a minor role or clearing a path for him to take the next step. In a rather surprising stroke of brilliance, GM Ken Holland chose the latter and traded Barrie to Nashville in a package to bring in Ekholm.
While a lot can be said about Ekholm’s impact on Bouchard, I’d argue to say that the biggest thing to happen through this trade was the opportunity it gave him. Bouchard had already proven in his rookie year what he was capable of if he was used in a premier role and this rocketed him up to the team’s top right-handed defender and de-facto power play quarterback.
We all know what happened from here. The Ekholm-Bouchard instantly clicked at even-strength and the NHL’s greatest power play of all-time got even better with #2 controlling traffic. He scored 19 of his 40 points in the last 21 games of the season and then put together an incredible postseason where he led all defenders in scoring with 17 points, despite getting eliminated in the second round.
What does next season hold?
Everything we have seen from Bouchard during his short time in the NHL suggests that he is a player that thrives when he is used in a premier role. His rookie season saw impressive production on the second pair and he exploded as one of the league’s most dangerous offensive defenders in the playoffs as he was thrust onto the power play.
The only time he has struggled is when he was buried down on the third pair and that will not be the case for this upcoming season. He is uncontested at the team’s power play QB and will most likely get top pairing minutes beside either one of Ekholm or Darnell Nurse. This could be a very big year for Bouchard.
More usage at even strength should see him match what he was able to do in his rookie season and adding in two years of development, more time with the Connor McDavids and Leon Draisaitls of the world, I do not think 40 even strength points is out of the question. If he can get 31 in his rookie year, why would 40 be a stretch on the team’s top pair.
The thing that should terrify opposing teams, and the Oilers cap specialist, is what he could do on the power play for a full year. Barrie was able to absolutely RACK up the points on the PP during his time in Edmonton, netting 75 points in 210 games (a rate of 0.36 points/game.)
To compare, Bouchard netted 23 power play points in just 33 games to end off last season. Pro-rate that over the course of an 82 games season and you get 57 points. Ludicrous numbers that would have him edging into rarified air as a 100-point defender.
But I’m not going to sit here and try to tell you “oh yes, reasonable expectations for the 23-year-old Bouchard is about 100 points.” No, that is the absolute cream of the crop, best of the best type of situation that could, but is highly unlikely to happen. To be honest, the fact that crunching the numbers (or something of that fact) gets us to discuss this is exciting in and of itself.
I will sit here and say that an 80-point season is within reach if Bouchard continues on the trajectory that he seems to be on. A 40/40 split is precisely the type of thing a player like Bouchard could achieve if used in the right way and all signs point to that happening.
I will handicap that for myself, just to be safe, and I’ll run with the assumption that more time on the PP might cut into his overall even-strength minutes and thus cut down those point totals.
Write this one down: I think Evan Bouchard will score at least 75 points in the 2023–24 regular season with about 45 of those points coming on the power-play.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire