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Is Evan Bouchard Ready?

From the day the Oilers selected Evan Bouchard there were whispers about whether or not he would see NHL games this year. My take was that the team would bring him to Europe for the start of the season, give him a handful of regular season games because of how difficult the first stretch of their schedule is, and then ultimately send him back to junior where he can dominate.

And then the Andrej Sekera news hit.

All of the sudden the Oilers went from having six legitimate NHL defensemen, to just five. Of course, there’s a chance that the team goes out and adds a free agent or makes a trade (which I wrote about earlier this week).

There’s also a chance that they pencil Ethan Bear into the lineup. He did appear in 18 games last season and while he had a lot of bright points with the puck on his stick, he was nowhere near NHL calibre when it came to defending. It was clear that he wasn’t ready for full-time NHL duty. I’m not sure if they can bank on that changing over one offseason.

Evan Bouchard has been the most talked about option. When I floated the idea of Bouchard staying in the NHL to Oilers fans on Twitter, about 90% of the responses I got back were negative. Which is understandable, we’ve all seen this organization trot through prospects well before they were ready to go

When I floated this idea to an OHL Scout, who spent a considerable amount of time watching Evan Bouchard this year, this is what I got:

“Bouchard is one of the most NHL ready players right now. I think him making the NHL is going to happen. London sold off last year at the deadline and the guy pretty much carried them into the 5th spot. Everybody also forgets that he has a late birthday so he has already played 3 years of Junior. He’s not an 18-year-old boy, he’s a mature, physically ready 19 year old man”.

I went and dug up some numbers (via prospect-stats.com) and here’s what I found from Bouchard’s draft year, which featured 67 games with the London Knights:

  • He was first amongst all OHL defensemen in 5v5 points (45) and t-1st in 5v5 primary points (35).
  • His 4.43 shots per game were first amongst OHL defensemen. However, out of 297 shots, 271 of them were low danger shots.
  • His 21 primary powerplay points were 2nd to Nicolas Hague (Mississauga).

Those aren’t his rankings amongst draft eligible defensemen, they’re his rank amongst every OHL defenseman, regardless of age.

That’s some very impressive production, especially when you consider that it was his draft year. Finding that type of dominance in a players draft year is very rare.

In fact, I went back through the last decade and dug through the numbers and I could only find two OHL defensemen who posted a better primary points/60 in their draft years. They were Anthony DeAngelo (0.49/36 total points) in 2013/14 and Ryan Ellis (0.54/44 total points) in 2008/09. That’s a very short list.

When I see those names I see a player who never really panned out (DeAngelo) and a player who needed almost four full seasons to become a full-time NHLer (Ellis). When considering that, it makes me lean more towards thinking Bouchard will need more time to develop.

Traditional hockey thinking would lead you to the conclusion that it would be best to send Bouchard back to the OHL for another year or two. But the second I think that, I’m reminded that since he is a late birthday, he has already spent close to three full seasons in the OHL. How much more can he really develop by going back and dominating younger opponents?

The NHL is getting young and faster. I think the days of defensemen having to spend 3-4 years developing outside of the NHL might be drawing to a close.

I haven’t seen Evan Bouchard play in person, and I would imagine that 90% of Oilers fans/media haven’t seen him play more than a handful of times, which is why I think it’s unfair to jump to conclusions about whether he’s ready or not. That’s the reason I reached out to a scout. I wanted the opinion of someone who has focused on him for a large sample size.

While I haven’t seen him play, what I do know is that he produced at an incredible rate, he’s very physically mature for his age, and he already has three years of junior development under his belt. I don’t care when or where he was drafted, if he comes into camp and performs like one of their six best defensemen, then he deserves to stick around.

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