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.
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
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.