Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Oilers draft and sign a rookie to an entry level deal, they leave that player’s exact position unfilled with competent veterans, then in camp they marvel at how well he looks compared to his competition. It’s a common thread of almost every Oiler camp I can think of dating back to at least the beginning of the HOPE era of this infinibuild. This year, it’s Evan Bouchard’s turn to walk directly into a spot left wide open for him.
I want to start by saying that I was jumping for joy when Bouchard slid down the draft board right to Edmonton at 10. As a high offense, volume shooting, puck distributing, right handed defender, the Oilers couldn’t possibly have been able to mix drafting for best player available and drafting for need better than they did. This kid has every opportunity to become the kind of player that the team has always wanted.
And that’s what I’m most worried about.
We’ve seen this play out before here in Edmonton. The Oiler brass, largely still in charge today as they were then, fell in love before with the offensive skills of another right handed defender whose ability to play with the puck was significantly more refined than his ability to play without it. Justin Schultz, for all his warts, had a talent with the puck that made him unreasonably attractive to his coaching staff. It was like heroin and the staff just kept chasing the dragon wondering why they couldn’t get more and more out of him no matter how many more minutes they played him.
Ultimately the Oilers destroyed Justin Schultz by playing him over his head and for more minutes than he could possibly handle. He was broken when he left Edmonton. They traded their once golden boy to the Penguins for a 3rd round pick where they rehabilitated his confidence and brought him back to his basics. They started him off at less than 15 minutes a night and always behind Letang in minutes even after he earned his way into the top 4.
Now I’m not here to say that Evan Bouchard shouldn’t make the Oilers. I’m not saying he’s going to become Jultz reincarnated. However, I am saying that I do not have a lot of confidence that this team can show the kind of steady hand and patience required to have a player with Bouchard’s given talents and hold back from throwing him into the deep end.
This is a team that couldn’t send Draisaitl to the minors until they played him 37 games in which he only picked up 9 points. This is the team that burned a club-controlled year of restricted free agency for Jesse Puljujarvi; all for the sake of getting 28 games and 8 points out of him as a rookie. Making sound decisions with young players isn’t exactly what the club is known for.
Evan Bouchard is impressing a good number of people already with his ability to dish the puck and make plays. He has an eye for the offensive part of the game, which is why people close to the team are starting to tweet things like this:
This from an NHL scout today:
"Bouchard is going to make the Oilers out of the gate. He is their best puck-mover. Smart and poised when he has it.
They are going to have to work with him on defending, but he flat out makes plays.."
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) September 22, 2018
Bouchard HAS impressed. He has a goal and an assist in his two pre-season games. Bouchard is even sporting excellent shot attempt metrics through his two matches (57.8% CF and 60.0% FF). He’s also played two games against under-powered forward lines in early pre-season. So far this September, the forwards who he has played the most against are Dillon Dube and Marko Dano. At least Dano has played in 130 games in the NHL, but neither he nor Dube are NHL regulars. He hasn’t exactly faced a murderer’s row of NHL players and it’s too premature to start talking about him making the team.
Let’s see how Bouchard does against NHL caliber forwards. Let’s see him handle the forecheck from a man who has played at least 4 or 5 full seasons in the league. How will he deal with the pace of an NHL game as rosters start to actually resemble something that he might face in mid-October? Bouchard might pass every test with flying colors or it may come to bear that he’s not ready. We just don’t know yet and I think we ought to pump the brakes on the kind of talk that builds a rookie up before he’s had a chance prove himself.
And should Bouchard make this club out of camp, I hope that this is the year the team comes up with an actual plan to protect and develop a player who is vital to their future. They cannot throw this kid to the wolves and pray for a positive outcome. And make no mistake, Bouchard’s development is necessary to this team’s long term success. They don’t have anyone like him on the right side of the ice…and that’s kind of the problem.