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Photo Credit: © Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

With sky-high offensive potential, the future is bright for Evan Bouchard 

For years, the Edmonton Oilers lacked a quality puck-moving defender on the right side. That changed on June 22, 2018, the day Edmonton drafted Evan Bouchard at 10th overall.

Drafted from the London Knights of the OHL, Bouchard’s offensive instincts, intelligence, puck-moving skills, and passing abilities were always commended by scouts.

Bouchard played in Edmonton’s first seven games in 18-19, but spent the remainder of the season with the Knights. The following season, Bouchard played 54 games with the Bakersfield Condors.

Before joining Edmonton’s NHL roster in 20-21, Bouchard played 23 games with Södertälje SK of the HockeyAllsvenskan league, but didn’t obtain consistent playing time in the NHL. He was primarily a healthy scratch under Dave Tippett, and played just 14 games with the Oilers.

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Bouchard was finally an NHL regular in 21-22. Thus far, he’s played a total of 102 regular-season games in the NHL, and 16 playoff games. He’s certainly shown the offensive talent that he achieved high praise for, and he has the potential to accomplish much more. 

In this piece, I’ll dive into Bouchard’s current results, his high upside, and why Bouchard could be one of the league’s top offensive defencemen for the next decade.

*All microstats via Corey Sznajder / AllThreeZones, all other stats via EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

The exceptional 5v5 offensive results

In comparison to forwards, I feel that there’s much more subjectivity in evaluating defencemen.

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Personally, I’m not the most avid fan of utilizing point totals as the primary tool for defencemen offence; on numerous occasions, a defenceman’s production totals can be inflated by the high-quality forwards they play with. 

Conversely, they may play on a team with forwards that finish at a terrible rate, causing their raw production totals to underrate their true offensive value. Defencemen tend to have minimal impact on the finishing abilities of their forwards; they obviously need to focus on defence, and in regards to offensive responsibility, one of their major jobs is to transport the puck to the forwards. From there, it’s the forward’s job to produce results, and so raw production totals can be misleading.

Consequently, it would be wise to also use scoring chance generation as a major tool to evaluate offence. In Bouchard’s case? He ranks exceptionally well from both standpoints.

This season, Bouchard was one of only six defencemen to rank top-20 in the league in both isolated impact on even-strength scoring chances (RAPM xGF/60), and 5v5 points.

The other defencemen include Roman Josi, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, MacKenzie Weegar, and Jaccob Slavin. Pretty decent company.

To be more specific, Bouchard ranked 4th in the league in RAPM xGF/60, and ranked in the 99th percentile; put differently, Bouchard’s impact on generating scoring chances was superior to roughly 99% of the league’s defencemen.

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With a total of 31 5v5 points, Bouchard ranked 11th among defencemen. Since 2007, only four other defencemen at or under the age of 22 have produced over 31 5v5 points.

They include Erik Karlsson (46P in 11-12), Cale Makar (43P in 21-22), Thomas Chabot (34P in 18-19) and Victor Hedman (32P in 13-14). Again, Bouchard places himself in exceptional company.

The closest U22 Oiler defencemen to accomplishing this feat were 22-year-old Darnell Nurse, with 22 5v5 points in 17-18, and 22-year-old Ethan Bear, with 19 5v5 points in 19-20.

An additional note is that Bouchard was slightly unlucky this season; at 5v5, he was on-ice for 61 goals, but 68.7 expected goals, and he ranked second last among Edmonton defencemen in on-ice shooting percentage. 

As stated previously, defencemen have minimal impact on the finishing capabilities of the forwards they play with. Bouchard spent considerable time with Edmonton’s bottom-six forwards that struggled to finish, and it’s highly likely that Bouchard’s on-ice GF will regress next season. His impact on scoring chances and shots suggests that he can produce even more.

In spite of facing poor offensive luck, it’s quite impressive that Bouchard’s 5v5 production still managed to rank 5th among U22 defencemen since 2007, and 11th among all defencemen this season.

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These superb offensive totals are certainly not something unexpected or shocking for Bouchard. In 2017-18, Bouchard posted 87 points in 67 games with the London Knights of the OHL. In 53 games in 2018-19, he had 53 points in 46 games. Bouchard always possessed high offensive potential.

To dive into the micro-level results, Bouchard has already proven to be the superb puck-mover that Edmonton has always desired.

Bouchard ranks second among Edmonton’s defence core in controlled zone entries per 60, and controlled entry%, behind Darnell Nurse in both facets. By a considerable margin, Bouchard is Edmonton’s best defender at zone exits, ranking in the 96th percentile in possession exits per 60, and in the 92nd percentile in possession exit efficiency. Bouchard’s shot assist totals are exceptional as well. He’s excellent at transporting and moving the puck throughout all three zones.

At merely age 22 in his first full season in the NHL, these offensive results at 5v5 are outstanding. It’s indisputable that his offensive potential is quite high.

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What about the defence?

As is the case with many defencemen early in their careers, Bouchard’s defensive results are poor (so far).

Bouchard notably struggles at defending high-quality chances. His net-front coverage requires improvement, and he can be prone to costly errors and miscues in his own zone. He’s efficient at exiting the zone with possession, but his performance without the puck in the DZ is substandard.

In regards to entry defence, Bouchard is actually quite solid at zone denials and is superb at preventing opposing carry-ins. Bouchard can be aggressive at the blue-line and forces a lot of dump-ins. 

In spite of this, Bouchard still allows an alarming rate of chances off the rush. He’s a good entry defender, but not a great defender of entry chances. This likely plays a role as to why he prevents shot attempts at nearly an above-average level, as he excels at suppressing the volume of entries against, but his quality suppression is abysmal, partially due to the relatively high amount of entry chances he allows.

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However, there are some encouraging things to note here.

Firstly, in spite of his defensive issues, Bouchard excels against top competition.

In a very limited sample, Kulak’s metrics against elite competition ranked atop the team (although his metrics against elite QoC were excellent in 900+ minutes with Montreal as well). In a decently large sample, Nurse’s performance was excellent.

Meanwhile, Bouchard ranked 3rd among defencemen in DFF% against top opposition in 353 minutes. 

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The goal differential is in favour of Bouchard as well. With Bouchard on-ice, Edmonton out-scored elite competition at a ratio of 17 – 13. Many young defencemen can get overwhelmed in difficult environments, but Bouchard proved to be fairly reliable against tough matchups. His puck-moving and offensive abilities outweighed his defensive issues.

Secondly, his defensive results in the postseason were quite good. I’m not a massive fan of using playoffs to evaluate most players due to the limited sample, but this is worth mentioning.

With 86 defensive-zone retrievals, Bouchard ranked 2nd among Oilers defencemen in the postseason. Bouchard’s strong entry defence continued, ranking 3rd on the team in zone denials, and only 47% of his entry targets led to zone carries against (league-average is 59%)

The Oilers also allowed fewer chances with Bouchard on-ice in the playoffs as opposed to without. Bouchard’s goal differential was subpar, but this was largely due to poor goaltending — Bouchard’s on-ice SV% was merely 0.885

Again, playoff samples can be unreliable, but it is encouraging that Bouchard improved in the DZ during the playoffs, and as the season progressed.

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I don’t think Bouchard will ever be a defensive stalwart, but it’s reasonable to expect his results to lean closer to average in the next few seasons. 

Spending more time with Dave Manson, and playing with Brett Kulak next season should help. As I wrote here, Kulak is Edmonton’s best defensive defenceman, and a duo of Kulak – Bouchard should be fairly well-rounded.

Looking ahead; reasonable production estimates in 2022-23, and potential contract possibilities

As stated previously, Bouchard had 31 5v5 points. In total, he had 43 points in 81 games.

Although I personally place a lot of emphasis on generating scoring chances, today’s NHL contracts are largely reliant on production totals, and Bouchard’s contract will undoubtedly depend on how much he produces next season. Three potential reasons could suggest that Bouchard’s production improves.

The first reason is obvious; he’s only 22. The road is only uphill from here, and Bouchard is certainly expected to improve, progress and take that next step.

Nextly, as stated previously, Bouchard faced some poor on-ice offensive luck in regards to on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice goals above expected. Bouchard’s GF should see improvements next season, and of course, the more goals a player is on-ice for, the more points they should obtain.

Bouchard’s role should also further increase, at both 5v5 and on the PP. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Bouchard will continue to play in a top-four role all season long. He could obtain more opportunities with the McDavid line, and at some point, we’ll see a Nurse – Bouchard top-pairing.

In regards to his potential increased TOI on the power-play, here’s a look at how Edmonton’s top PP unit performs with Nurse, Barrie and Bouchard:

The power-play scores at its highest rate with Nurse on-ice, and the lowest rate with Bouchard. However, it’s the opposite in regards to scoring chances.

Bouchard tends to take a lot of point shots, and this may play a role in the low SH% for PP1 with Bouchard on-ice, but they still managed to generate a high amount of high-danger chances. I would expect that SH% to regress upwards; a 7.7% PP oiSH% is exceedingly low, and Bouchard’s power-play performance in the OHL and AHL was quite good.

Bouchard primarily played on PP2 in 20-21, and will likely obtain more opportunities on the top power-play unit in 22-23. He produced a total of seven points on the man-advantage this past season. If Bouchard is the primary defenceman at PP1, 25 PP points is possible for him, but with Barrie on the roster? It doesn’t seem highly likely.

I could see Barrie and Bouchard rotate at PP1, and in this scenario, ~10-15 PP points is certainly achievable for Bouchard.

I’ve strongly advocated trading Barrie due to his expensive $4.5M cap-hit. However, I’ve seen some argue that Edmonton shouldn’t deal Barrie, and that they should continue to grant him regular minutes on PP1 to keep Bouchard’s production down, potentially lowering his contract next off-season.

This is a valid point, but the PP still manages to score at a high rate with Nurse. Consequently, Edmonton could deploy Nurse as the primary defenceman at the point on PP1, while Bouchard occasionally rotates. Broberg could also obtain an opportunity on PP2.

A reasonable prediction for Bouchard is around ~40 5v5 points and ~50-55 total points. 60+ points isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but it does depend on his TOI on the PP (it may not occur in 22-23, but I do believe Bouchard hits the 60 point-mark at some point in his career, and he could perhaps even hit the 70 point-mark).

Typically, a 50+ point defenceman of Bouchard’s age could obtain ~$6M, and perhaps even higher. This is why I believe that Edmonton should begin long-term contract discussions with Bouchard this off-season.

Darnell Nurse signed a $3.2M, two-year bridge deal in 2018, and another two-year bridge deal worth $5.6M in 2020, eventually leading to his lofty $9.25M contract that begins this season. Edmonton cannot repeat this mistake with Evan Bouchard. They should highly avoid bridging him, and discussions regarding a potential extension should start as soon as possible. Locking him up long-term should be a priority.

I have a lot of faith in Bouchard. At age 22, his offensive results are excellent. Bouchard has the potential and upside to be one of the NHL’s premier offensive defencemen for many years to come.

Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)