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Photo Credit: © Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to lock up Evan Bouchard

There is one year remaining on Evan Bouchard’s entry-level contract. Even though this won’t become a front-burner issue until next summer, the Oilers need to start thinking about how they want to handle the defenseman’s future.

He won’t have arbitration rights next summer when he’s an RFA for the first time (he needs to play two more seasons to gain arbitration rights), so it would be possible for the Oilers just to kick this can even further down the road by signing him to a short-term deal but that might not be the smartest move. The team should be looking at the big $9.25 million contract they gave to Darnell Nurse last summer as a reason why it’d be smart to lock up Bouchard now. 

Yes, there is value in having a couple extra million dollars in the moment, but going the bridge route with Bouchard could end up costing the team a lot in four or five seasons.

Look at how the Oilers handled the Oscar Klefbom situation. They gave him a good amount of guaranteed money and they would have been rewarded with one of the best value deals in the entire NHL if he had stayed healthy.

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So how much could a long-term deal with Bouchard look? 

He’s coming off a season in which he put up 43 points, which ranks 28th amongst defensemen. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he had 35 points at even strength, which ranks 14th among all defensemen. 

Bouchard was the 14th most productive defenseman at even strength in the league. The 14th highest-paid defenseman in the league makes $8 million. That’s a lazy little bit of analysis but it does show the kind of value that the Oilers are getting out of him on his ELC.

Now, Bouchard is far from an $8 million defenseman in his own end but he’s also just 22-years-old. It’s expected that it takes offensive defenseman longer to figure out the defensive side of things. We also know that offensive defensemen get paid so it’s not unrealistic to think that if Bouchard keeps up this level of production he could one-day command north of $7-8 million a season.

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I would also point out that one of the things Evan Bouchard does best is move the puck out of his own zone and when you’re on the ice with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisailt that’s an incredibly valuable skill to have.

Yes, he isn’t great defending off the rush and he can look lost sometimes when the other team is cycling the puck, but his ability to make a clean first pass and get the puck out of his own end is a huge positive. The best way to not get scored on is to make sure the puck isn’t in your own end.

I’m getting a little off-topic, but the point is that Bouchard is already a good top-four defenseman and he will only get better. That’s why Ken Holland should be doing everything in his power to lock up Bouchard now before his value starts to really skyrocket.

What are the comparables for Bouchard? Well, just pointing out who is the 14th highest-paid defenseman in the league is an incredibly lazy way to do it. There are far more factors at play than that. 

Bouchard will turn 23 this October, meaning the Oilers will have is RFA rights for five more seasons. That will help bring down the AAV of a long-term deal. If they signed him to a max-term eight-year contract next summer, he would then be a UFA at the age of 32 years old.

Bouchard may not be crazy about the idea of signing a deal that takes him right through his prime, but if the Oilers offered him say, $6 million per season, it might be tough for him to turn down $48 million in guaranteed money.

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Does that sound like an overpay? Well, it really shouldn’t. Let’s look at some comparables.

Last October, Quinn Hughes signed a six-year deal worth $7.85 million per season. Hughes was born five days after Bouchard was and at the time of signing that deal he had appeared in 129 career games. In that span he had 97 points with 46 of them coming on the powerplay. 47% of his production came on the man advantage.

As things stand right now, Bouchard has played 102 games and has posted 49 points. Hughes had a PPG of 0.75 when he signed his deal while Bouchard’s is 0.48. Bouchard only has nine powerplay points though. His even-strength points per game is 0.39 which is identical to what Hughes’ was before last season.

If Bouchard gets more powerplay time, which could start happening this season, his numbers will skyrocket and so will his value. Another reason why the Oilers should be trying to lock him up as soon as possible.

Rasmus Dahlin signed a three-year deal coming out of his ELC that carried an AAV of $6 million. 

Considering the length of the Dahlin contract and the AAV of the Hughes deal, an eight-year deal with an AAV of $6 million might not even be enough to get Bouchard locked up.

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When Columbus wanted to lock up Zach Werenski last July, it ended up costing them $9.53 million per year on a six-year term. Werenski is a class above Bouchard, as is Miro Heiskanen who got an eight-year deal with an $8.45 million AAV from the Dallas Stars, but those two deals show that if Bouchard takes a step forward at each end of the ice this season, he could get very expensive, very quickly.

So can the Oilers afford to start paying Bouchard that kind of money right away? I think so.

Next summer they’re scheduled to have $13.7 million in cap space next season. Assuming Ryan McLeod signs for $1.5 million, that number will drop to $12.2 million.

Their only notable free agents are Jesse Puljujarvi and Stuart Skinner. Those two could cost a combined $5-6.5 million on the high end of things depending on their performances next season which means the Oilers could have close to a full roster signed for next season with somewhere around $6.2 million to sign Bouchard. That’s not a lot of extra money, but they could have the $2.75 million AAV of Warren Foegele off the books and they could also move out $4.5 million by trading Tyson Barrie.

They could very easily make room for a long-term extension for Bouchard and still have money left over to fill out the rest of their roster.

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The big pieces of their core are already locked up. McDavid, Draisaitl, Nurse, Nugent-Hopkins, Kane, Campbell and Hyman are all under contract for at least three more seasons. Kulak, Ceci, and Yamamoto all over a little bit of term as well. The main pieces of this roster are locked up and won’t need deals for a while. That’s another reason why they’d be wise to get Bouchard under contract for as long as they can.

One day the cap will start to rise and when that happens, players like Draisaitl and McDavid will need new deals. That also means that having Bouchard on a potential bargain deal is even more important.