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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 12.0: Bouchard Makes Debut (8pm MT, SN Oil)

Evan Bouchard hasn’t played in the NHL since October 25th, 2018. That was the last of his seven NHL games that season, before he was sent back to London in the Ontario Hockey League. Bouchard was 19, his birthday was five days before he scored his first NHL goal on October 25th against the Washington Capitals.

A lot has happened since we last saw Bouchard in an NHL uniform. He finished his junior career producing 16-37-53 in 46 games. He played for Canada at the 2019 World Junior Championships and was an alternate captain.

He spent the 2019/2020 season honing his skills with Bakersfield in the American Hockey League, and he started this season playing 23 games with Sodertalje in Sweden. His path back to the NHL has taken some unique turns, due to COVID, but Ken Holland wisely gave him a full AHL season to develop.

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He had a solid rookie campaign in the AHL, producing 7-29-36 in 54 games and he worked at playing with more pace and becoming a better defender. Bakersfield head coach Jay Woodcroft shared his thoughts about Bouchard’s improved play defensively.

“I see him growing before our eyes in that part of his game,” said Woodcroft last season. “When you talk about defending, proximity to your check is very important. The ability to have some sort of spatial awareness of where your opponent is, to be able to control him through your movements and your physical relationship with that opponent is important. And I think that when junior hockey players or NCAA players come up into the pro ranks, they play off of their check a lot. And what you learn fast in the NHL and what you learn fast in the American Hockey League is that if you give good players space, they’re going to use it to their advantage.

“So that’s something we remind him of and that takes the shape in many different forms. It can be off of the rush, when a puck gets hit out into the wide lane and his job is to pick up the middle driver and how close he is to his check in that regard. It could be his net play with controlling where the opponent goes in terms of meeting his check early rather than giving his guy too much time and space to be able to find different options.

“He is a very coachable young man and he’s working earnestly at his craft. He’s in a good spot. He commands huge minutes for us and he earns every single one of them,” said Woodcroft.

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Since then, Bouchard played in Sweden, and he was able to continue his development. It isn’t the NHL, but playing games was better than sitting at home and doing nothing. The Oilers haven’t rushed Bouchard. He likely would have played last week, but he tweaked his back according to Dave Tippett. And tonight the 10th pick in the 2018 NHL draft will get another look. If he plays well he will force the coaching staff to make a tough decision, and that is what coaches want.

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If Bouchard shows well, then Tippett and Jim Playfair will need to decide which right defender come out. That is a good problem, and one coaches will like.  Bouchard has size to go along with his puck moving skills, and that is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. Tyson Barrie and Ethan Bear are puck movers, but neither has the size of Bouchard, while Larsson lacks the puck skills of Bouchard.

The NHL game is evolving and there will always be room for small, smart defencemen, but skilled defenders who are 6’3″ are the foundation of championship teams. The two previous Cup winners, Tampa and St.Louis, had huge, mobile and skilled defenders, and that is what the Oilers believe Bouchard can be. He is only 21, so he doesn’t need to be that top-end defender today, but it will be good to see how far his game has come since saw him 27 months ago.

LINEUP…

Oilers

RNH – McDavid – Puljujarvi
Kahun – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Achibald – Haas – Kassian
Turris – Chiasson

Nurse – Barrie
Lagesson – Larsson
Russell – Bouchard
Koekkoek

Koskinen

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Tippett has elected to go with 11 forwards and seven defenders. James Neal, despite scoring two goals on Sunday, comes out. I’d have sat Turris or others over Neal. The Oilers will have five right shots in the bottom six tonight. Keeping Neal fresh after playing back-to-back games is a rational explanation. He did have COVID and admitted to me it hit him hard.

But it seems this was based on who can play where. Tippett wants to keep Chiasson involved after sitting out so long. And the other factor I see is Tippett giving Jesse Puljujarvi every opportunity to get going. Taking Neal out to keep Puljujarvi in isn’t based solely on merit, so no one can complain Puljujarvi wasn’t given every chance to gain some confidence.

I believe if they were playing Calgary or any other team tonight, Neal would have remained in. He comes out so Bouchard gets a game, although we could argue they are being a bit over-cautious about Bouchard. Lagesson played with six defenders, and Bouchard has played in the NHL before. If I’m reading between the lines, I sense a bit of caution in regards to Bouchard. Also, Tippett wants to see if one of Kris Russell, Slater Koekkoek or Lagesson can perform well on the PK. It needs to get going.

I understand why Tippett wants to keep players fresh and involved, and he liked Chiasson’s effort last game — same with Lagesson — and both will play again. Kyle Turris is likely only in because he can play centre. If he was a winger, Neal would be in before him for sure. It will be interesting to watch how much Turris plays tonight compared to Gaetan Haas. Haas had a very strong first game on Sunday, and I could see him taking the 3C spot if he continues to play well. But if they double shift McDavid and Draisaitl with the fourth line and Turris plays wing, then I’d have rather kept Neal in the lineup.

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I am trying to look at all sides of this. It is a bit complex, and it looks odd because Neal scored twice last game. I’d have loved to have heard the conversation between Neal and Tippett. They respect one another, but I doubt Neal was happy about it. I’d wager a lot of money he will be playing Saturday in Calgary.

Senators

Tkachuk – Norris – Brown
Paul – White – Dadonov
Stutzle – Tierney – Batherson
Paquette – Chlapik – Watson

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Reilly – Zaitsev
Coburn – Gudbranson
Brown – Zub

Hogberg

Marcus Hogberg gets the start. He has a .845sv% and 4.71 GAA. Thomas Chabot is not ready to return, but he is getting closer.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…

From SensChirp.ca:

After starting their season with an impressive win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Senators have gone into a bit of a tailspin. And when I say a bit of a tailspin, I mean one of the worst stretches in franchise history. Since the expansion years, anyway.

Terrible goaltending, bad defence, atrocious penalty killing and a fan base in a complete freefall. Outscored by a 44 to 22 margin. Eight straight losses and another game against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers on tap.

It’s all starting to feel a little bit repetitive.

After starting their season with an impressive win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Senators have gone into a bit of a tailspin. And when I say a bit of a tailspin, I mean one of the worst stretches in franchise history. Since the expansion years, anyway.

Terrible goaltending, bad defence, atrocious penalty killing and a fan base in a complete freefall. Outscored by a 44 to 22 margin. Eight straight losses and another game against Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers on tap.

It’s all starting to feel a little bit repetitive.

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers win three in a row and McDavid and Draisaitl continue their hot streaks. Oilers win 5-2

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers powerplay scores twice. The PP has looked great for the past four games and they are oozing confidence.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Gaetan Haas scores his first goal since his penalty shot goal on February 1st, 2020.

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