As Mattias Ekholm’s game rebounds early in season, Evan Bouchard’s game follows suit for Edmonton Oilers

Photo credit:Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Laing
6 months ago
Not long after the Edmonton Oilers capped off their 5-2 win in the Heritage Classic, Mattias Ekholm was found sitting in his Commonwealth Stadium locker.
With troves of media members surrounding the veteran defenceman and a half-eaten plate of sushi in his lap, he apologized for the food being right there — typical hockey player in Canada.
But happily taking questions from yours truly and a contingent of other scribes, Ekholm shed light on what had been a slow start to his season. After all, he missed the entire training camp and the season opener with an injury.
“When you miss training camp, yeah, you’re not playing for points, but you do build chemistry,” said Ekholm, “and you do get timing, you do get a sense of the game. I do feel like that’s coming along better as each game goes by.
“As time goes on, I feel more comfortable playing, since I did actually miss time.”
Those first few games could have been better for Ekholm. His first six saw the Oilers outscored 6-4 at 5v5 with him on the ice, and Ekholm didn’t have the same jump in his step that he did the year prior.
After all, between his arrival in Edmonton in a Feb. 28, 2023 trade and through the end of the regular season, he was one of the best defencemen in the entire league. He played 355 5v5 minutes for the Oilers, and comparing his numbers to all NHL defencemen who played at least half his time on ice, his numbers were outstanding.
The Oilers outscored their opposition 31-10, controlling 75.61 percent of the goals scored, the second-best rate among defencemen. His 61.67 expected goal share percentage was sixth among rearguards, with his 61.04 percent scoring chance share ninth.
None of those numbers were close to what we saw from Ekholm through his first six games of the season, but in that Heritage Classic game, something changed. Aside from one mistake that led to an A.J. Greer goal for the Calgary side, Ekholm played his best game of the season.
“Ekholm did miss camp, and he missed a lot of reps in camp,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft. “I don’t think he’s played to his capabilities just yet, just on the simple fact that being in your early 30s and missing six weeks… that’s tough on anybody.
“He’s played catch up with the game going very fast. I thought (the Heritage Classic) was his best game. I think part of what makes him who he is is he’s got a strong voice, but part of having a strong voice is making sure you’re playing well yourself, and doing the things you’re comfortable with in your own game.”
There’s no denying how important Ekholm was for the Oilers last year and how much he will be the same for the remainder of this one. It’s not just what he brings to the table but how he helps elevate Evan Bouchard, too.
“I think me and Evan, too, have had some games where we don’t like our defence,” said Ekholm. “I don’t think we’re going to be a shutdown pair because that’s not our thing.
“But we’ve got to be able to move pucks quick and not get stuck in our d-zone. I’m 10 years-plus into my career now and I’ve had different partners throughout my time. I feel like the best, or most success I’ve had with partners is the ones who have a bit more of an offensive edge because I have more of a defensive edge but still can defend, and I can still join the rush, I can still play offence, too.
“I do feel like we’re a match there, and I do think we can feed off each other. I think it’s a matter of again, when you miss those three, four weeks of practice time, you’ve got to catch up sometimes, and that’s hard to do through the regular season. I do think we’re getting to something that’s a lot better.”
That’s close to what Woodcroft views from the two, too.
“I thought Bouchard had a tough game a couple night ago in Minnesota, and what I’ve seen from him is he’s responded very well, that pair (Sunday in the Heritage Classic), was excellent for us,” he said. “A lot of poise back there, poise on breakouts.
“We’re going to need them to continue to grow and take a step as we go forward.”
Bouchard himself, as Woodcroft noted, hasn’t had the sharpest start to the year, either. Despite the Oilers with him on the ice at 5v5 controlling 57.14 percent of the shot attempts and 57.6 percent of the expected goals, the club has been outscored 9-5 with Bouchard on the ice. A critically low 92.9 PDO is deflating those numbers, but the plus side is, as Woodcroft said, both he and Ekholm’s game is starting to find its way.
That will be a huge boon for this Oilers club moving forward.

Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at zach@oilersnation.com.

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