Hands up all Edmonton Oilers’ fans who’ve already mentally penciled London Knights’ grad Evan Bouchard into coach Todd McLellan’s line-up somewhere for the 2018-19 NHL season – if only to get an idea of what the blueline might look like. Actually, it might be easier to count those who haven’t. That’s understandable.
On the face of it, after all, Bouchard ticks so many boxes when it comes to what the Oilers need and have been lacking – a right-shot D-man who can log a ton of minutes, has a bomb of a shot from the point and can run a power play. The fact that he was even still on the board (with Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom) when the Oilers made the 10th pick at the NHL Entry Draft in Dallas was reason enough for high-fives.
Dustin Nielson wrote about the Oilers killing two birds with one stone because they went into the draft looking to address the need for a right-shot D-man and to make a big swing with the 10th pick, and he was absolutely right. Based on draft reports and rankings, it appears the Oilers accomplished the latter. As for the former, while it looks like Bouchard can eventually become that guy, we likely aren’t going to know until next season or maybe the season after that.
The one thing the Oilers can’t do, and fans can’t expect, is for the big kid from Oakville to fill that glaring need as an 18-year-old (he turns 19 Oct. 20) and to come out of his first NHL training camp next fall ready to take the role he’s been drafted to fill. Could it happen? Sure. It’s possible. Should we expect it to happen? History tells us no, but it – and what I’m seeing online — also tells me that there’s a fair number of you out there who’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t, who’ve already penciled him in.
IT TAKES TIME
I’ll apologize in advance for playing Mr. Wet Blanket, but while the need for the player Bouchard might become is immediate, and has been sitting there like the elephant in the room for awhile, his ability to grow into the job description is further down the road. How far? I don’t know. At least one more season, I’d think. Maybe two or three. More? Maybe it starts with a nine-game look at the start of the coming season.
What the Oilers absolutely, positively can’t do is throw Bouchard in over his head – even if it means starting next season without the big, right-handed bomber from the point they need. There will be the temptation, given the minutes Bouchard logged in London, the 87 points he put up and the fact he’s already played three OHL seasons with the Knights, to give him the benefit of every doubt. The Oilers have to resist that temptation. They must.
Based on everything we read about Bouchard going into the draft and will likely see when the Oilers open their development camp this afternoon, fans should be pumped about seeing what he brings to the table. There should be a buzz. Fans penciling him into the line-up before we know what’s-what is one thing. McLellan and the coaching staff doing so is another. I know, thanks, Captain Obvious. The thing is, we’ve seen it happen.
Compounding the whole situation is that if Bouchard doesn’t play in the NHL this season, he’ll have to go back to the OHL because of his age and, from where I sit, he’s got very little left to prove in the junior ranks. That doesn’t mean there’s not some good to be had in him going back to the Knights and dominating again, but I’d rather see him in the AHL if he’s not quite ready for primetime.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’ve got no problem seeing Bouchard in the Oilers’ line-up, at least to start next season, if he earns the shot. Saying there’s no way he should get a look no matter what he does is just as close-minded as rushing him in when he’s not ready – it’s just the opposite end of the development spectrum. What the Oilers have to do is err on the side of caution with the big picture in mind. That’s not something we’ve always seen around here. They can’t rush him. That sounds obvious, at least it should.
From the moment the puck drops this afternoon, I hope Bouchard is of the mind that he’s going to come to camp competing for a job, feeling like he’s ready to make the jump now. Who doesn’t want a kid competitive enough to feel that way? It’s not up to Bouchard to put the brakes on that possibility. It’s up to the Oilers’ hockey-ops people to do that, to assess and decide what makes the most sense when the buzz gives way to doing what best serves the player and the team.
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