Photo Credit: © Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Why Evan Bouchard playing on the Top Pair is Edmonton’s best option

There was quite a lot of avid discussion during the off-season regarding the effectiveness of a second pair consisting of Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci. However, thus far, they’ve exceeded expectations (although I’m not quite certain if it will sustain). In regards to the defence core, their pair hasn’t been the biggest talking point so far. Instead, it’s been Edmonton’s top pairing.

The prior season, Ethan Bear was paired with Darnell Nurse to begin the year, but after Bear missed nearly a month due to a concussion, Tyson Barrie took over his role for the remainder of the season. To start 2021-22, Barrie remained in his role as the top right-defenceman following the departure of Bear.

However, the pair of Nurse and Barrie have not had the most exceptional start to the season on the defensive side of the ice. The duo has been outscored 3-4 and outshot 32-44. Subsequent to when the pair allowed two goals against in two consecutive shifts on Tuesday night against Anaheim, Evan Bouchard was promoted and replaced Barrie on the top pair for the remainder of Edmonton’s 6-5 victory. Barrie still began the following game against Arizona on the top pair, but he made a defensive error on Arizona’s lone goal. 

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Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer stated that Barrie is currently “on a short leash,” and this was indeed proven true. The following game against Vegas on Friday night, Barrie moved down to the third pair alongside Kris Russell. Evan Bouchard started the game with Darnell Nurse, and the duo posted a 100% goal share, and an 81% expected goal share together in a 5-3 victory.

In this piece, I’ll dive into why I believe that the former 8th overall pick does indeed deserve this opportunity with Darnell Nurse, and why Tyson Barrie could largely benefit from being deployed on the third pair.

*All stats via EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

How good has Bouchard been so far in the NHL?

It’s not the largest of sample sizes, but during the games he’s played in the calendar year of 2021, Bouchard has produced a 52% expected goal share and a 54% shot attempt share. He’s averaged roughly 14-15 minutes per game at even-strength and his most frequent linemates have been Draisaitl, Yamamoto, Koekkoek and Russell.

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Per Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine on Twitter, he manually tracks microstats and I’d highly recommend checking out his work), Bouchard had the lowest Failed Zone Exits/60 out of Oilers defenceman last year and the 4th highest Zone Entries/60. One of Bouchard’s biggest strengths is quite evidently his superb transitional play.

From an “eye test” perspective, Bouchard is an effective skater with excellent puck skills, passing ability, and vision. He’s generally calm in his own zone and isn’t prone to creating a large number of defensive errors. A lot of his value comes as a result of his offensive talent, but his defensive game isn’t bad either.

One of my (only) concerns, however, is how Bouchard can be prone to shooting at an excessive rate. Bouchard is 1st on the Oilers in individual shot attempts/60. Furthermore, out of all defencemen in the past two seasons with at 200 minutes played, no player took a higher percentage of their on-ice shot attempts than Bouchard did (Bouchard was on-ice for 284 shot attempts and individually took 87 of them).

My point isn’t that he should seldom shoot, but a player taking ~31% of their team’s on-ice shot attempts is pretty high for anyone. Nonetheless, he’s still an exceptional offensive player and I feel that he’s had a solid stint in the NHL thus far.

It’s only been five games, but Bouchard is 1st for Edmonton defencemen and 3rd in the league (!) in EvolvingHockey’s xWAR (Expected Wins Above Replacement) model this season. Analytical models (like WAR and xWAR) can produce odd results in limited sample sizes, but I’d still interpret this as an encouraging sign.

Looking into the impact of the “Five-Man Unit” on Connor McDavid

Many know how Dave Tippett began deploying a “five-man unit” last season, in which the pair of Nurse-Barrie would spend nearly entire games solely beside McDavid’s line. Nurse spent just 25% of his time without McDavid and Draisaitl last year, while Barrie spent 23% of his time without them (in prior seasons, Klefbom/Nurse would only spend around 45-50% of their time with Edmonton’s two superstars).

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But to what degree was the five-man unit effective?

Simply put, McDavid’s play was superior without the Nurse – Barrie pairing last season as opposed to with. One of the major factors for these results was due to how Nurse and Barrie simply didn’t work defensively together. Barrie is prone to making numerous dangerous pinches and risky plays, while both he and Nurse would often have coverage issues in their own zone. They were fine offensively, but they didn’t have any defensive chemistry whatsoever, especially against top opposition. This turned out to be a hindrance on McDavid’s two-way play, especially when it came to high-quality shots.

It isn’t the most significant concern in the world, as McDavid still performs fine with and without them. But it is a factor worth noting since the Nurse/Barrie duo doesn’t fully maximize McDavid’s two-way potential, especially considering the rate at which the five-man unit allows high danger chances against. Perhaps a more defensively-sound Bouchard could assist the top pair in benefitting both McDavid’s offensive and defensive game to a higher extent.

Barrie’s most effective role at 5v5 is on the third pair

I believe that at this stage of his career, Barrie’s 5v5 play is more suited for a role on the third role rather than on the first pair. To begin, his metrics against top competition last year were quite poor.

Both Adam Larsson and Ethan Bear (Bear’s DFF% against Elite was actually 2nd in the league among defencemen) were superior defenders against elite competition. However, it was the opposite way around regarding defending against weaker (i.e. “Gritensity”) opposition. When opposing 3rd and 4th liners, Edmonton markedly improved with Barrie on the ice as opposed to without, which is why I feel that Barrie could thrive playing on the third pair.

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Additionally, Edmonton’s bottom 6 saw an improvement with Barrie last season.

This visual may be slightly confusing, but as a summary, Edmonton’s depth forwards were exceedingly poor last season. However, they improved with Barrie on-ice compared to without.

One of the primary reasons Barrie struggled against tougher competition was due to how playing against top lines exposed his inadequate defensive ability. Playing against weaker competition reduced these defensive issues, and allowed him to further utilize his offensive ability and provide more of an offensive spark to the bottom 6. Since Edmonton’s bottom 6 has seen a huge improvement this season, Barrie could further maximize Edmonton’s depth forwards.

To add on, Slater Koekkoek and Kris Russell are currently rotating as the left defenceman on the third pair. Although it’s a limited sample, it is an encouraging sign that Koekkoek and Barrie had a 53% expected goal share and a 59% high danger chance share together (per Natural Stat Trick). 

If Barrie can continue his strong play against weaker competition and if he can sustain solid results with Koekkoek, Edmonton could have a very serviceable third pair.

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May 4, 2021; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard (75) celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks in the second period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Bouchard has yet to attain the 30 GP mark. You could argue that in spite of the fact that he’ll get plentiful playing time alongside the best player in the world, there’s a possibility that feeding him to the wolves may not be the best idea at this stage of his career.

However, even if Edmonton has found success with them so far, Nurse/Barrie’s defensive results and their impact on McDavid are important factors to keep in mind. I don’t feel there’s any harm in at least giving Bouchard a shot in this position for a stretch of games to see what he can offer. I think it would result in being the best option for Edmonton as a whole since Barrie is a far more effective player when deployed on the third pair. Not a lot of factors point to Bouchard posting inferior two-way results than Barrie in my opinion, most notably when it comes to defensive play.

The game on Friday night was the beginning of many opportunities in which Bouchard will get a chance on the top pairing, and I feel that there’s a strong chance that he’ll thrive in this role. What are your thoughts? Should Evan Bouchard continue to get time alongside Darnell Nurse? Or Tyson Barrie return to that role for the remainder of the season?

Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)