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Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Kids These Days

Watching Evan Bouchard and Kailer Yamamoto heading in opposite directions in Dave Tippett’s line-up during the Edmonton Oilers 6-5 win over the Anaheim Ducks Tuesday was an interesting juxtaposition and another reminder young players seldom develop in a straight line.

Bouchard moved up from third-pairing duty alongside Slater Koekkoek to Tippett’s top pairing with Darnell Nurse on a night he’d score a goal and add an assist in 19:36 of playing time. At the same time, the coach took Yamamoto off a line with Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and stapled his backside to the bench for most of the third period when he didn’t like what he was seeing.

Bouchard is celebrating his 22nd birthday today with the Oilers hitting the road for games in Arizona Thursday and Las Vegas Friday. He has just 24 games on his NHL resume, but last night he looked ready to take Tyson Barrie’s job for keeps, settle into big minutes with Nurse and stay there. At some point? Sure. Now? Let’s not get carried away. We know better.

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In 2019-20, Yamamoto, now 23, looked like a top-six lock on a line with Leon Draisaitl and RNH, but has struggled mightily to produce offensively since then. After putting up 26 points in 27 games that season, he went really dry in the second half of last season and has just 8-13-21 in 55 games since. Lack of production, mistakes, and bad penalties tend to put you where Yamamoto found himself last night.

WHAT THEY SAID

Oct 19, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; The Edmonton Oilers defensemen Evan Bouchard (75) celebrates a third period goal against the Anaheim Ducks at Rogers Place.

Bouchard, who banked a puck behind Anthony Stolarz to put the Oilers ahead 5-4 and had an assist on Zack Kassian’s power-play goal, shows great poise for a young player. He has a terrific shot from the point, he can run a power-play kill penalties. Bouchard has lots of first-pairing hockey ahead of him, but there will be bumps along the way. This we know.

“He’s a solid player, a smart player,” Tippett said of Bouchard. “(He) reads situations well. Usually, he executes pretty well, he’s calm with the puck, engaged in the physical battles . . , the biggest part of the maturity in his game is he’s not running anybody over, he’s just using his body well, using body position to box people out. He’s a good player.”

Bouchard spent a lot of time waiting his turn last season, getting into just 14 games and averaging 14:50 in ice time. After seeing too many young players, especially D-men, pushed into minutes they weren’t ready for, many fans were clamoring to see him get more minutes last season. We’re just three games in, but Bouchard seems to be on that track now. 

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“I just want to play my game, not be focused too much on the minutes,” Bouchard said. “I just want to play hard, strong games so that in those crucial minutes you can play . . . it’s just hard work and you really have to embrace wherever they put you, whatever role it is. That’s what I’m doing now.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Apr 29, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom (25) makes a save with Edmonton Oilers forward Kailer Yamamoto (56) looking for a rebound during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

While Bouchard seems to be easing into more playing time rather seamlessly now, we know there’ll be challenges. Yamamoto is in a different place as the team hits the road after going minus-3 against the Ducks and riding the pine. The kid fans dubbed the Honey Badger hasn’t forgotten how to play smart, productive hockey. It just looks like it. This will pass. 

I won’t be surprised to see Yamamoto back with Hyman and RNH on the road trip. Likewise, Tippett could put Bouchard with Nurse or he could drop him to his third pairing. These kinds of moves come and go with the ebb and flow, to borrow from Tippett, of a season and they are part of the normal development of young players like Bouchard and Yamamoto. 

Previously by Robin Brownlee