The Oilers likely won’t be bringing their AHL affiliate north of the border for the upcoming season, which creates a handful of interesting problems in regards to some of their younger players. The team is basically going to have to make a decision on a player like Evan Bouchard and stick with it. If they want him to be playing games in the AHL, and send him down to Bakersfield, recalling him will be difficult with the current border restrictions. He would have to quarantine and wouldn’t immediately be available to the Oilers.
On the other hand, if they keep him up with the big club, then he won’t be getting into as many games. He’s currently their fourth-best right-shot defenseman and I really can’t see him being a regular in the NHL lineup with the likes of Ethan Bear, Tyson Barrie, and Adam Larsson all on the roster.
In a normal year, Bouchard would more than likely start in the AHL and then get a call-up once the Oilers ran into injury problems on the blueline. That would be the best of both worlds because it would allow him to play games at the AHL level and not just be sitting in the press box. But this is far from a normal year and like I said, with border restrictions and quarantine rules in place, the Oilers won’t have the luxury of recalling and sending down Bouchard whenever they please.
So what should the Oilers do with him? There are a handful of things that need to be considered.
The first is that Bouchard has already been playing games overseas. My opinion on this would be very different if Bouchard had been spending the last few months just skating and training as he would in a normal offseason. The fact that he’s already appeared in over 20 games in the HockeyAllsvenskan leads me to think his development won’t be harmed by playing 10-20 NHL games this year instead of 40+ AHL games.
Also, the AHL season isn’t starting until February. So bringing him to NHL training camp and then keeping him in the NHL will actually allow him to be on the ice more than sending him down to the AHL will. Also, Bouchard had a really good season with Bakersfield in 2019/20, posting 36 points in 54 games. He’s already shown us that he can excel at the AHL level.
It’s also believed that the NHL schedule will be more condensed than in years past. Teams might be playing more back-to-back games and the league could have a more ‘MLB style’ schedule that has teams playing one opponent multiple times in one road trip. If they are required to play more back-to-backs or play three games in four nights more than they would in a normal season, it makes even more sense for Evan Bouchard to stay with the big club. Players will get nicked up and need to sit out every once in a while. It would be a big advantage for the Oilers to have a quality young defenseman like Bouchard ready to slide into the lineup on a regular basis.
Just because he isn’t going to be an everyday defenseman, doesn’t mean he won’t play at all and it doesn’t mean his development is going to be hurt. He’s still going to get a chance to play, he just won’t play in all 56 games. Also, the Oilers don’t have another quality right-shot defenseman that they can use instead of Bouchard.
When you look at the Oilers roster, they have way more depth up front than they do on the blueline. I think that might be why you see prospects like Tyler Benson, Ryan McLeod, and Raphael Lavoie sent down. But it’s a different story on the blueline. Even if Bouchard isn’t in the top six on a regular basis, he’s still going to get a chance to play.
Again, in a normal year, we would see Bouchard in the minors to start the season but I don’t think that’s the best spot for him this year. There might be more value in keeping him with the NHL club, having him practice with NHL players all year, and play in 10-20 (or more) NHL games during the regular season.