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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Top of Mind

The way I see it, there’s no way the Edmonton Oilers have room for more than one rookie defenceman on their roster this coming season. If there is one, I’d be willing to bet his initials are E.B. The question is, will it be Ethan Bear or Evan Bouchard? We obviously don’t have that answer yet, but who did you think of just now?

I get it why Bouchard might be top of mind with fans after the Oilers selected him 10th overall from the London Knights of the OHL in June. He’s the new, shiny thing in the Oilers’ pipeline of prospects, a blue-chipper who fell to them when all indications were he’d be gone by the time they made their pick. He has already made one quick twirl through town and I look forward to seeing more – as does the Oilers’ brain trust.

Framed in that, I’m hoping that Bear doesn’t get lost or overlooked in the buzz that’s bound to surround Bouchard once training camp opens and the pre-season begins. From where I sit, Bear will come into camp further along the development curve and, barring a huge disparity in performance, deserves the inside track for a roster spot. I bet I get some disagreement on that.

FURTHER ALONG

Mar 1, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Ethan Bear (74) skates during warmup against the Nashville Predators at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t have much doubt that Bouchard will likely turn out to be a higher-end NHL player than Bear two or three or four years down the road – we devoted plenty of ink to him leading into the draft, including a preview piece I wrote. He ticks so many boxes when it comes to what the Oilers need, it’s difficult not to get excited about seeing Bouchard in Oilers silks. It’s human nature to want to see that sooner than later. From a hockey-ops perspective, that’s not necessarily the best approach, although it often unfolds that way.

Based on his draft pedigree and what scouts have to say about him, Bouchard might be able to take a run at a job in his first training camp with the Oilers. You have to think he’ll get at least a nine-game look. One of the factors that people cite when suggesting Bouchard might be ready is that he has already played three full OHL seasons with London. Fair comment. That also brings me back to Bear.

When it comes to where the players are today, Bear has what I consider a huge head-start in development, as you’d expect from a player drafted three years earlier. Numbers-wise, it’s there for all – including everybody in Oilers’ hockey ops – to see. Bouchard, who will turn 19 Oct. 20, has 178 regular season games, plus another 28 in playoffs, on his OHL resume over three seasons.

Bear, who turned 21 on June 26, played 264 regular season games and another 50 in playoffs over parts of five WHL seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Bear played 37 AHL games with Bakersfield and 18 with the Oilers last season, tallying 1-3-4. None of that will matter much further down the road, but here and now, with training camp on the horizon, I’d argue it does.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Jun 22, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Evan Bouchard poses for a photo with team representatives after being selected as the number ten overall pick to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t like it that Bouchard is limited to playing with the Oilers or being sent back to junior, but those are the rules as of right now. I’m also not sure, as some argue, that there’s nothing to be gained by sending Bouchard back to London if he doesn’t show beyond any doubt he’s ready to play here. Bear returned to Seattle in 2016-17 and was named WHL defenceman of the year. I’m guessing that didn’t hurt his development.

The bottom line is I don’t want to see Bouchard rushed into NHL duty if he’s not ready. That goes without saying, or it should. The other part of that in the circumstances the Oilers are in right now is they already have a young, right-handed shot in Bear who is worth a look, who they have already invested some time in and who is further along the development curve. Let’s not skip right past him because Bouchard has arrived.

If the Oilers play things right, if they handle the development of Bouchard and Bear properly, there’s room for both of them down the road, even if that’s not the case here and now. Do it right and we could see a couple of productive young righties on the blueline for a decade. If the Oilers play it wrong, if they rush Bouchard and forget about Bear, they risk blowing it with both of them.

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  • LAKID

    Well Brownlee I like the fact that Bouchard will have to go back to junoir and not be rushed if he can’t handle it at the NHL level, infact I would like to see the draft age increased.

  • JayTee

    Bear and Jones hopefully step in this year and next year so Sekera and Russell can be traded to free up cap room.

    Bouchard needs to go back to junior. I don’t care if he has already played 3 seasons there, he’s still only 18 (turning 19). Let him play one final season in junior, with Boqvist on that top pairing in London. Give him the World Juniors as well, and barring a Memorial Cup run, let him finish the season in the AHL.

    • Leichs

      But why. You haven’t even seen him play a pro game yet and there’s nothing left for him to learn in Junior playing against little teenagers lol. Why waste a year of good development? He will be 19 a week into the season. If Ekblad can step in and put up 40-50 points as a rookie why cant Bouchard? I mean Bouchard did score 87 points in only 67 games compared to Ekblads 53 points at the same age in the same league. Lets see how he look at camp and pre season before you banish him to juniors for no apparent reason other than his age.

      • DARYL G

        Have you seen Evan play? I watched the prospects camp and although he has great attributes he is not a dynamic skater need edge work and acceleration off the mark. Also I watche a lot of tapes on the London Knights and he got into bad habits when you play 35 mins a night you have to conserve energy and he drifted a lot. Needs to play 22-25 mins and put out every shift.

      • FutureGM

        dude, a simple google show Ekblad has NEVER cracked 40 pts to date. What are you talking about?! He has a chance to QB the world jr team, win a medal and develop leadership skills all the while NOT burning up his ELC. With the players that we are committed to due to contracts and Ethan Bear available there shouldnt even be a discussion about this

      • JayTee

        Just because he put 87 points in 67 games doesn’t mean he’s ready. Lets compare him to Ryan Ellis:

        Ellis:

        Junior 1: 63 points in 63 games (1.00 ppg)
        Junior 2 (draft year): 89 points in 57 games (1.56 ppg)
        Junior 3: 61 points in 48 games (1.27 ppg)
        Junior 4: 101 points in 58 games (1.74 ppg)

        Bouchard:

        Junior 1: 17 points in 43 games (0.39 ppg)
        Junior 2: 44 points in 68 games (0.64 ppg)
        Junior 3 (draft year): 87 points in 67 games (1.29 ppg)

        Now, obviously, Bouchard is older when he got drafted compared to Ellis but you’re telling me that he has NOTHING left to learn in junior? You could’ve said Ellis was ready for the NHL the season after he got drafted, but he still played 2 more junior years.

        You guys complain that we rush prospects, Bouchard isn’t any different because of the season he had. Give him the 9 games, but there’s no need for him to be in Edmonton this season.

    • sweetweb

      If you saw Bear last year, you would see his defensive game needs work. If you know anything about Caleb Jones you would see he’s nowhere close to ready for the NHL. In fact Jones struggled quite abit in the AHL last year.

    • ifiwasgm

      You are 100% on that but thats not the way Oilers do things. I think they didn’t like it 2yrs ago because they had a low draft pick, and it just didn’t feel right.
      The great teams never bring in teenagers, mediocre or bad teams do. Thats what the Oilers are.

  • ed from edmonton

    Let’s not be surprised if neither stick around. Bouchard has attributes that could make him more NHL ready than almost any draftee there is still a quantum leap from Jr to NHL
    Last year we saw what Bear could and couldn’t do. Great with the puck, weak without it.

    • Vanoil

      He already did that last year in the OHL. He was finalist for Defenseman of the Year and League MVP. I would hope his sights are set on goals a lot higher than that.

      • Bills Bills

        Of course I am sure his expectations for himself are higher than anyone’s. But that doesn’t mean completely dominating junior for a year is going to hurt his development or confidence. But struggling in the NHL sure could. Nurse is a prime example, he spent an extra year in junior and should have spent an entire season in the AHL. But the Oilers rushed him from junior and while showing signs of what we wanted, he struggled. It ended up putting him at least a year back in his NHL development. We have 5.5 legitimate NHL defenders signed, I am a bit on the fence with Benning. So there is zero rush for this kid to make the NHL this season. And the RBs point, Bear does need an opportunity to see if he can step up.

        • crabman

          @Bills Bills

          I agree Nurse could have benifited with more AHL time or at least 3rd pairing minutes in the NHL gis 1st season. He did fine once he was played on the 3rd pair. It was gis time with Sekera on his offside that Nurse looked like he wasn’t ready.
          Plus Nurse did play 2 more years in junior after his draft. drafted 2013 and spent his 13-14 and 14-15 seasons in junior.

          As far as Bouchard goes, if he is clearly ready, clearly the best option, and can be sheltered then he should make the team. If he isn’t then there is nothing wrong with another year junior.

  • Jimmer

    Sekera and Russell will be our boat anchors in 2019-2020 if Bouchard plays full time for the Oilers not this coming season but next season. If you assume a $3.1M x 2 years bridge deal for Nurse you will have your top 4 d-men (Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse and Bouchard) making $4.16M, $4.16M, $3.1M and $925K. That is decent value for what you are getting. The issue is the $9.5M in cap space that will be tied up between Russell and Sekera. That to me is even more important to get rid of than Lucic and his $6M.

    • ScottyPrime

      Sekera’s contract is MUCH more worrisome for me than Lucic’s. Sek is fine value for the cash/term when he was healthy, but I’m very skeptical of him being able to come back in at anywhere near the form he had 2 years ago after that injury at his age. It just doesn’t happen very often. If he does that’s great but if not his contract is gonna be a real problem for the Oilers going forward. Lucic has reasonable odds of bouncing back and being a positive, if overpaid, player for the team. Sekera’s up against it to provide even replacement level play.

      • Bills Bills

        He is 32 not 38, from all accounts he is in great physical shape and as he is also smart enough positionally to make up for half a step. He will recover and have a fine year and likely traded by July 1 2019.

      • OilerForLife

        Frankly the NMC, and the cap hits will make it very difficult to move Sekera and Russell. For now they stay..we’ll see about next year. One massive year makes all the difference.

    • Make Another Bad Trade or Signing!!

      Russell can play as a starter on virtually every NHL team. Sekera can play as a top-4 D-Man on every NHL team if he recovers from his surgery. I don’t see either of these contracts as boat anchors (injury could turn Sekera’s contract that way). The contract that looks to me to be the highest risk for the Oilers is Lucic. His play has not been good for 2 years, certainly well below his $6M contract value, and the last 1/2 season was terrible, both by looking at the stats and the eye test. He looked like he gave up. We will know more by December, but this one has lots of potential to go bad.

  • Vanoil

    Bouchard was already a finalist for BOTH Defenseman of the year and Player of the year in the OHL. So by all accounts he is one/two years farther ahead than Bear was at his age (did Bear play one or two over-age years in the Dub? — he played 5 total?) The only concern with Bouchard is his physical stature and mental acuity — both of which develop differently amongst defensive prospects. I doubt there is much difference in development at this point; but regardless it sure will be fun to watch in September. Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to rely on Russel as a RHD absent injury? Here’s hoping he & Sekera are the people battling it out for 6/7 D — that alone would show how much farther along our Draft (and Develop) System has come along since the now extended Decade of Darkeness began.

  • Mahaloeh

    This is what training camp, exh. games & the 9-game window is for! If he’s ready he’s ready if not send him back to junior. This discussion should really be had at the beginning of October not now.

  • OriginalPouzar

    From what we saw last year, Bear could transition the puck at an NHL level, arguably even the best on the team.

    Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else that Bear was able to do at the NHL level – he struggled mightily in many areas of the game (defensive zone coverage, gap control, mobility, etc.).

    With that said, that was last year and Bear should now be stronger, older, smarter, etc. after training during the summer knowing exactly what it takes to make it in the NHL. I doubt he will have been able to develop his game to an NHL level over the summer and will need AHL time, however, its up for Bear to show us.

    If Bear shows in camp and during the later pre-season games that he truly is ready, well, that makes the decision on Bouchard much easier. I don’t see this happening but we’ll see.

    The other factor is that the situation is similar to the Puljujarivi/Yamamoto decision last year. Bear can be sent to the AHL and recalled at any point – he is not subject to waivers. Once Bouchard is re-assigned to London, the organization cannot bring him back.

    As an aside, I have little doubt that, like Bear, Bouchard will be able to move the puck at an NHL level – that’s his best skill. Do we really think that the rest of his game is any less NHL ready than Bear’s? Maybe but that’s not a foregone conclusion.

    With that said, even if Bouchard matches Bear’s NHL ability at this point, that does not mean that the NHL is the best place for him to be.

    What’s best for Bouchard’s development should be the trump in this situation, not necessarily what’s best for the Oilers at least in my opinion. The success of this team will be largely predicated on prospect development and graduation to the NHL – the organization needs to ensure our higher end prospects are given the best opportunity to develop fully.

    Its going to be interesting to watch these two player in camp – come on, bring on rookie camp!

    • DARYL G

      Hopefully the new defensive coach will help him if he comes to camp and has improved in the many areas he is deficient in he may stay for a few games then move back to he AHL.

  • Craig1981

    If it was me (its not), i would have more high prospects in Europe when they can’t play in the AHL. Good for professional and personal growth. Mathews did ok after

    • Bills Bills

      Anyone with a CHL contract would not be able to play in Europe from my understanding. Besides, Matthews is a special player. Europe develops great skating and passing defensemen likely because of the larger ice, but history tells us it takes them longer to adjust to the NA style and schedule of hockey.

      Personally I wish some European players could go play a year in the CHL right after being drafted. A much easier transition to the marathon that is a NA hockey season.

  • DARYL G

    I watched Bouchard at the prospects camp. Lots to like thinks the game well has a great shot and is very composed. He also does not accelerate well and needs edge work, very glad we drafted him but I don’t see an NHL ready dman far from it. 9 games then back to junior, he was playing 35 mins a night and got into bad habits. You have to conserve you energy playing that many minutes so he was drifting a lot. He needs to cut it down to 22-25 and put out every shift. If he does that he should tear up the league.

    • That's My Point

      ISS Scout Matt Manners:

      “Quarterbacks the PP. Makes a great first pass and isn’t afraid to rush the puck up ice. Effortless skater with good quickness. Plays a complete game smart player. Not many weaknesses. Needs to get stronger to play at the pro level.”

      Bouchard is one of the top two-way defenders in this year’s draft. He logs a lot of minutes for London and was relied on in every situation. He is a smooth skating, mobile defender that has an effortless skating stride. He has excellent vision and composure from the back end and rarely panics or turns pucks over. He is one of the best in the age group on the offensive blue line and has a knack for getting his cannon of a shot through traffic and on net. Very good on the PP and very good at finding the open man and not throwing the puck away, can walk the line and not afraid to fake shots or passes.

      Does Daryl G. know more than scouts after watching prospects camp?

  • The Whispererer

    @Bills Bills
    Regarding your above comment about Nurse being rushed to the NHL after 1 season in Junior…
    Nurse actually spent his Draft + 1 and +2 seasons back in junior, and started his D + 3 season in Bakersfield for 9 games. He was brought up to the Oilers at 4 months short of his 21st birthday. Why, you might ask ? Well the Oilers LHD consisted of Sekera, the oft injured Klefbom, Andrew Ference on IR from which he would never return, and the wondrous duo of Nikita Nikitin and Griffin Reinhart. It’s difficult to accept that Nurse’s development was rushed.

    • Bills Bills

      Yup and if they had a competent defense with a bit of depth, they could have afforded to leave him in the AHL for an entire season. Not 9 games. It hurt his development to go from junior to the NHL. Or are you denying that a full year in the AHL would have been beneficial to his development?
      They have enough depth on the roster now that there is zero reason to bring Bouchard directly to the NHL from junior. For the first time in a long time, they have enough legitimate players to make up for (*some) injuries. As for the gap on the right side for a PP shooter, deal with the holes in your lineup by playing to your strengths. The answer is not to expect a 19 year old rookie to solve your problems. All things being equal, Bear needs to be outplayed for that spot. And if all of Nurse, Benning, Russell, Sekera, Klefbom and Larsson are healthy, Bear becomes number 7 or goes back to the AHL until an injury call up. Which I am okay with.

      • OriginalPouzar

        I don’t disagree that some additional AHL time in his draft plus 3 year for Nurse wouldn’t have hurt but, if I remember correctly, he acclimated himself to the NHL quite well right away and his troubles started when he was moved up the lineup and asked to play with Sekera on the 1st pair (with Sekera on his off side where he is not nearly as good).

  • Vanhellian

    I love Bear! I’d like to see him play down on the farm with some time in the big leagues. And Bouchard should stay down, barring some miraculous play in camp.

  • OilCan2

    EB makes the Oilers. EB goes to the AHL waiver free; logs big minutes and comes in ready to contribute when the injury bug bites. That’s how you do it following the (silly) rules.

  • Bond

    If any of our young guys clearly earn a job in the preseason then we should keep them. That should be the outlier not the norm. If it means Bouchard is close but is sent back to junior, that just means next year he’s propbably ready. Eathan Bear is still very much developing and should start in Bakersfield and be the first callup when the time comes. AHL ice time will benefit him immensely, and the Oilers when they bring him back.