Evan Bouchard’s professional career has been quite a strange ride.
He was selected by the Oilers No. 10 overall in the 2018 draft and was quickly fast-tracked to the NHL by a general manager desperate to fill a glaring hole on a cap-strapped team badly in need of a puck-moving defender.
Bouchard swam in his seven-game cup of coffee with the Oilers in early 2018 and Peter Chiarelli was interested in keeping him around, perhaps for the entire season. Todd McLellan, who was Edmonton’s head coach at the time, kept Bouchard out of the lineup for multiple games, which ultimately forced Chiarelli to send him back to the OHL to develop properly.
Edmonton’s management and coaching staff has changed since and Bouchard has gone from being fast-tracked to being taken along very, very slowly. After spending the entirety of 2019-20 in the AHL and then spending most of 2021 watching the Oilers from the press box, it’s finally Bouchard’s time.
This is a prospect who has looked NHL-ready for quite a while but has had to wait for his opportunity. As expected since Ken Holland took over, this situation represents quite a change-of-scenery for the Oilers, who, for years, threw young players in the deep end without a life jacket.
Let’s hope patience pays off and Bouchard has a breakout season on Edmonton’s blueline.
Date of Birth: October 20, 1999
Drafted: 2018, No. 10 overall (EDM)
Weight: 194 lbs
Bouchard has produced at every level he’s played at. You can even argue that he’s produced effectively in a small sample size at the level NHL at this point.
In 2015-16, Bouchard broke into the OHL with the London Knights and scored 17 points over 43 games, a solid showing for a 16-year-old. He took on a larger role with the Knights in his 17-year-old season in 2017-18 and his production rose to 44 points in 68 games, plus seven more points in 14 games in the playoffs.
Being an October birthday, Bouchard got a third go-around in the OHL before he was eligible for the NHL draft. In 2017-18, he exploded with a wildly impressive season, scoring 25 goals and 87 points over 67 games as London’s captain. The Oilers happily drafted Bouchard at No. 10 overall, which was lower than he was expected to go.
And then we have Bouchard’s post-draft season in 2018-19, which saw him play just about everywhere.
He started with that aforementioned cup of coffee with the Oilers and scored one goal over the course of seven games. The team then sent him back to London, where he would put up 53 points over 45 games, somewhat pedestrian given what he did the year before. Bouchard also represented Canada at the World Juniors, scoring three points over five games.
Bouchard’s good-not-great regular season with the Knights was erased after his spectacular showing in the playoffs. In 21 playoff games, he scored four goals and added 21 points, though the Knights got upset in the second round. Bouchard then joined the Bakersfield Condors for their playoff run and he again operated at a point-per-game clip, scoring eight points in eight games.
Based on that season, it appeared inevitable that Bouchard would be playing a role with the Oilers come 2019-20. But when Ken Holland replaced Peter Chiarelli, things changed. Holland is notorious for bringing prospects along very, very slowly, so Bouchard spent all of 2019-20 in the AHL while Ethan Bear was the young defender who grabbed a role with the big league club and ran with it.
Bouchard had a strong professional debut season on a Condors team that demanded quite a bit out of him due to injuries on Edmonton’s blueline and subsequent call-ups. In 54 games, Bouchard scored seven goals and 36 points, good for a tie for second on the team in scoring with Tyler Benson.
The 2020-21 season was another strange ride for Bouchard. He started off playing in Allskevan, Sweden’s second league, with Sodertalje, where he put up 17 points in 23 games. He then came overseas and cracked Edmonton’s lineup. He found himself in and out of the lineup in January and February and then didn’t play at all in March and April. Bouchard played in a couple of games against Vancouver at the end of the season but only appeared in 14 of Edmonton’s 54 games, a puzzling move by management for such an important prospect.
The challenge for Edmonton was that Bouchard would have had to undergo quarantine to join the Condors in the United States and he would have had to do the same if they called him up. Without much depth on the right side of the blueline, the Oilers ultimately opted to keep Bouchard around as insurance while not trusting him enough to play when they had a fully healthy lineup.
When Bouchard did play, though, he mostly looked like an NHL defender. He scored five points across those 14 games and had the second-best shot attempt differential of any Oilers defender, behind only Dmitri Kulikov, who played 10 games for the team.
The eye test showed a defender with poise well beyond his years, one who could make an excellent first pass out of the offensive zone and serve as a very strong option on the point on the power-play. The one negative with Bouchard is his mobility, as his lack of footspeed can result in him getting walked by quick forwards. This is the thing Bouchard is going to have to fix in order to blossom into a top-pairing defender. But, even if he doesn’t get quicker, more experience in the NHL and learning how to better position himself will be a way to compensate.
Since Bear was traded away this off-season, Bouchard will now get his chance to be an everyday player for the Oilers. Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are ahead of him on the depth chart and he’ll start playing third-pairing minutes. If he performs well, though, there’ll be a chance for Bouchard to take on a bigger role.
Expectations for this prospect are high given his results in the OHL and AHL. A breakout season from Bouchard in 2021-22 would be huge for Edmonton’s blueline.
For reference, players who I consider to be “prospects” for this countdown are skaters who have played fewer than 50 NHL games and goaltenders who have played fewer than 25 NHL games. I’m basing the rankings on a combination of upside and the likelihood of reaching that potential.