The theme of Tuesday’s win against the Senators was ‘The Kids Are Alright.’
Jesse Puljujarvi buried his first two goals of the season, the first of which was a gorgeous dangle and second effort, and Evan Bouchard looked like a quality NHL defender in his 2021 season debut.
It looks as though Puljujarvi has found a home alongside Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the team’s top line. He offers speed, skill, and strength and he isn’t afraid to go to the net, which bodes well when playing with those two.
But what about Bouchard?
The No. 10 overall pick from the 2018 draft drew into the lineup on Tuesday for his first taste of NHL action since October of his draft year. Between then and now, Bouchard dominated the OHL, put together a strong rookie season in the AHL, and had an impressive 23-game stint playing in Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second league.
An injury to Ethan Bear opened a spot on Dave Tippett’s blueline for Bouchard to finally get a look. Though we don’t want to go overboard and draw sweeping conclusions about a game against arguably the worst team in the league, there’s no doubt that Bouchard looked good out there.
He played 16:56, 16:40 of which came at even-strength. Only Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl logged more five-on-five minutes on Tuesday than Bouchard did. While Bouchard was on the ice, Edmonton had 21 shot attempts and allowed 16 and they outscored the Senators 1-to-0.
The eye-test also matched up. Bouchard, whose calling card is his ability to move the puck, made a wealth of smooth, quick, tape-to-tape passes in the defensive zone, a nice change of scenery from puck being banked off the boards. Poor skating, which had been the knock against Bouchard on draft day, didn’t appear to be an issue either, as he was able to effectively defend on the rush and jump into the play when necessary.
This clip that Zach Laing grabbed of Bouchard receiving the puck near the boards on the blueline and quickly dragging it to the middle for a shot on goal very nicely captures what this young, puck-moving maestro brings to the game…
name another oilers defenceman who can activate and fire a shot like this. i'll wait. pic.twitter.com/N3pyD4Onpn
— zach laing (@zjlaing) February 3, 2021
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday THURSDAY EDITION question. Should Evan Bouchard be a regular defender in Dave Tippett’s lineup? Where does he fit on a fully healthy blueline?
As I mentioned earlier, an injury to Ethan Bear, Edmonton’s top right-handed defenceman, opened up an opportunity for Bouchard to slide into the lineup. Tippett also gave James Neal a night off in order for the team to operate with seven defencemen.
Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson did the heavy lifting, playing 23 and 20 minutes respectively. Tyson Barrie played 19 minutes, roughly four of which came on the power-play. Bouchard played almost exclusively with Kris Russell and the pair logged about 17 minutes. William Lagesson and Slater Koekkoek were used sparingly, playing nine and eight minutes each.
With Bear on the sidelines, it’s easy to find room for Bouchard as one of the team’s right-handed defenders. But what about when Bear is back?
Personally, I think it’s pretty clear that Evan Bouchard is one of the six best defencemen on Edmonton’s roster. The challenge is that the Oilers already have a veteran puck-mover in Tyson Barrie, a quality two-way defender in Ethan Bear, and a shutdown guy in Adam Larsson on the right side. It’s sort of a funny problem to have when you think back to the days in which there wasn’t a right-handed defender to be found under contract with the Oilers.
A healthy Bear is a mainstay in the lineup on the top pairing with Nurse. Barrie has seven points in his last four games and is starting to find his groove after a slow start that was likely the result of not having any pre-season games with his new club. Larsson has had a difficult season but his shutdown play is clearly valued by Tippett.
Come 2021-22, one of Barrie or Larsson, or perhaps both, will be gone and Bouchard will have a consistent role on Edmonton’s blueline. But that’s a long ways away and we’d all love to see Bouchard playing in the NHL this season. Of course, a prospect having to push his way into the lineup rather than being thrown prematurely into the deep end is a nice change of scenery for this organization.
What say you, Nation? Where does Bouchard fit on Edmonton’s blueline? Should he draw in ahead of a veteran like Barrie or Larsson? Or will Bouchard simply be an injury fill-in during the 2021 season?