This was an eagerly awaited moment for Evan Bouchard. He finally had an NHL roster spot. The season started amazingly for him as he quickly rose up the lineup and performed well. But then the inevitable happened, an Evan Bouchard slump. It has been a rough few weeks for him, but with this essentially being his rookie season, is there cause for worry yet? I’ll look into that through this article.
Setting the Stage for the Season
Ever since the Edmonton Oilers drafted Bouchard tenth overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, he has consistently ranked as one of the organization’s top prospects. The defender was highly touted as an offensive force after his time with the OHL’s London Knights, including an 87 point season in his draft year. We’ve been waiting patiently over the past few seasons for him to permanently remain on the NHL roster, and this season it has finally happened.
In the past offseason, the Oilers’ depth chart at right defence was cleared out after Adam Larsson signed with the Seattle Kraken and Ken Holland traded Ethan Bear to the Carolina Hurricanes. This basically gave Bouchard a roster spot right out of training camp as he slotted in on the third pairing behind Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci. And that third pairing is where Bouchard started on opening night.
The Rise of Evan Bouchard
The arrangement with Bouchard on the third pairing did not last very long. By the third game of the season, he started seeing more regular time on the top pairing beside Darnell Nurse. He quickly took over that spot from Barrie, and for good reason.
Evan Bouchard has always had a few good things going for him in the way he plays. His poise is incredible. He is patient, calm under pressure, and does not panic with the puck. This helps him make consistently good breakout passes and have a positive impact on the team’s offence, as shown earlier this season by JFresh’s player card for Bouchard.
This trait, combined with his innate ability to get the puck through traffic when he shoots, has given the Oilers a new offensive weapon their roster has lacked in recent years. And early on this season, Bouchard was able to utilize this to work his way up the lineup and solidify his presence as a major part of the Oilers’ defence.
Bouchard had nine goals and 24 points in his first 41 games, an excellent pace from a top defender. Especially someone who was not getting much powerplay time. In fact, 19 of his 24 points were scored at even strength. This is a testament to the type of player he is and what he can provide to a team’s offence.
Evan Bouchard Slump
Around the beginning of February, the Evan Bouchard slump began. In the first few games of the month, his ice time started to go down. Then when the Oilers made a coaching change, his role with the team seemed to have changed. Jay Woodcroft began icing his rosters with 11 forwards and seven defenders and his ice time dropped. Instead of playing most of his even-strength time with Nurse, he found himself paired up more with other rookies, like Markus Niemelainen, or Duncan Keith, when he is not injured.
To me, the Evan Bouchard slump is concerning for a couple of reasons. Partly because it really seemed like he was turning a corner and that this season was a bit of a coming-out party for him as he became an NHL regular. The organization was patient with him over the past few seasons and now was his chance to show what he could do. For the most part, he had been earning his ice time and occasional powerplay opportunity. It seems counterintuitive to take the ice time away from a prospect who is trying to graduate up to the NHL.
But that brings me to the next reason. Overall, even though there appears to be a bit of an Evan Bouchard slump, it seems to me that the focus on his development has shifted a bit, giving him time to work on the other parts of his game.
Referring back to Bouchard’s scouting report out of his junior days, even though he was an incredible offensive talent, there were marks against him for his defensive play. He has a tendency to get beat by speedier players, find himself out of position, and (from my own observations) enters ‘floating’ mode where he looks disengaged as he watches the play around him.
These traits are still present in his game. They’ve been impacting his play recently and we’ve been seeing more and more goals against that were in part due to a turnover or missed assignment by Bouchard. For example, a misplay like this one. He misreads the play and jumps ahead way too quickly, giving the Minnesota Wild an odd-man rush the other way and a goal against. These types of turnovers have been happening more frequently lately.
Reasons not to Worry About the Evan Bouchard Slump
It"s always a bit concerning when a player goes through a rough patch and the holes in his game become glaring. But we still should not worry about Evan Bouchard for a couple of reasons.
First, we know he has the offensive mind to be a top-pairing defender and future powerplay quarterback. But, the Evan Bouchard slump is simply a bit of a wake-up call that he is still in his first full season (though he is not technically a rookie or Calder eligible). There is a ton of development and ups and downs for him to work through.
Secondly, with his current utilization in a more limited role, Woodcroft and Dave Manson will have plenty of time to work with Bouchard on the details of his game. Giving him weaker competition and a more veteran linemate in Keith will go a long way for his development and confidence. And with a new coaching staff that is familiar with the players and has been fully involved in their development over the past few seasons, I see a chance for them to start working more on his defensive game.
There are just over 20 games left on the season for the Oilers. That is a lot of time for Bouchard to slowly get worked back into a bigger role defensively, taking on tougher opponents, and learning how to correct the flaws in his game. He is a smart player, we see it in his poise and decision-making with the puck. The challenge for him now is expanding that intelligence into more situations. I, for one, think that the Evan Bouchard slump will help him create a stronger and much more rounded game.
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