Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Duncan Keith, Mattias Ekholm, the Edmonton Oilers defence and why it’s time to put some respect on Evan Bouchard’s name
By Zach Laing11 months ago
There is a common narrative that has come to be in Edmonton over the last two seasons: Evan Bouchard only looks good when he’s played with a veteran defenceman.
This was suggested last year when Duncan Keith was in Edmonton, and we’re already hearing that lazy trope come to be during Mattias Ekholm’s tenure in town. Now let’s be crystal clear here: for as good as Keith was, and as tremendous as Ekholm has been, Bouchard in his own right is a great young defenceman.
Here are Bouchard’s key 5×5 numbers alone, with Keith and with Ekholm from 2021-22 through 2022-23, at the time of writing, thanks to Natural Stat Trick:
|w/o Ekholm or Keith
|w/ Mattias Ekholm
|w/o Evan Bouchard
|w/ Duncan Keith
|w/o Evan Bouchard
Here’s a colour-coordinated screenshot of the above chart, if it’s easier to read.
Row one is Bouchard’s numbers without Duncan Keith or Mattias Ekholm. Row two are Bouchard’s numbers with Ekholm, and row three are Ekholm’s brief numbers without Bouchard. Row four is Bouchard’s numbers with Duncan Keith, and row five are Keith’s numbers without Bouchard.
Lots of numbers here, but let’s break things down slowly here from the top down. First and foremost, Bouchard has shown an ability to have a strong impact on the game. With him on the ice, the Oilers control 56.32 percent of the shot attempts, 55.15 percent of the scoring chances and 56.1 percent of the expected goal share. The only knock? His actual goal share is just 45.73 percent. That’s an issue, no doubt, but we can look to his on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice shooting percentage. Those statistics, however, don’t fall solely on Bouchard as a player.
Over the last two years, the league average rate for GF/60, GA/60, xGF/60 and xGA/60 are all 2.57, so while Bouchard’s actual goal rates are below league average, his expected goal rates are both above average. That’s a great sign because what it means is that the chances the Oilers are getting on the ice with Bouchard out there are of high quality and what we know about both actual goals and expected goals is that over large sample sizes, they should be the same number.
The league average on-ice shooting percentage over the last two years is 8.44 — 1.3 percent above Bouchard’s. The league average on-ice save percentage over the last two years is 91.58 — 2.01 percent above Bouchard’s. Simply put, Bouchard’s luck has been poor these last two years. Lots can go into that including the individual play, but as I mentioned above, the fact the Oilers are getting high-quality looks is a great, great sign.
Keep in mind that all of these analytics for Bouchard that I’ve mentioned above is what’s happening when he’s on the ice without Duncan Keith, or Mattias Ekholm.
When we look at the numbers for Bouchard and Keith from last year, there are a few things that jump out namely the fact the Oilers controlled 63.41 percent of the goal share. A great sign, no doubt, but there are a few flaws in it. The team continued to drive play towards the offensive zone, but at a much worse rate. While the Oilers scored 3.64 GF/60, their expected goal share of 2.92 — still above league average — shows the team was scoring on worse chances than if Bouchard was without Keith on the ice.
When Bouchard was playing with Keith instead of any other defender, the Oilers were controlling the shot attempt share at a 1.92 percent worse rate, the expected goal share at a 4.92 percent worse rate and the scoring chances at a staggering 5.99 percent worse rate. That’s significant and while it worked out well in a short time frame, in the big picture, this was a pairing that were likely going to see big regression in terms of their goal-scoring if they had been together this season. This can be seen from an on-ice shooting percentage 1.41 percent higher than league average and an on-ice save percentage 1.14 percent higher than league average.
Stylistically, I’m not sure how great of a pairing these two were together. While Keith was better than I expected him to be with the Oilers, the regression in his game was very apparent. He had lost his foot speed, impacting his ability to have time and space to make smart decisions with the puck. He also struggled with clearing out the front of the Oilers’ net at times, something Bouchard is still learning how to do, and Keith wasn’t overly strong at retrieving pucks defensively, either. Keith also had lost the ability to transport the puck very well. It created issues where the Oilers could easily get hemmed into their own zone if Bouchard wasn’t able to either skate the puck out of the zone, or make a strong pass out of it — things he’s been very underrated at doing thus far in his career. Bouchard was forced to carry a more significant load defensively as a result.
When Keith was away from Bouchard, his numbers took a step back as the Oilers took 13.38 fewer shot attempts per hour, scored 1.19 fewer goals per hour and generated .63 fewer expected goals for per hour. The Oilers shot attempt share fell 4.27 percent, their actual goal share fell 10.35 percent and the expected goal share fell .93 percent.
To put it simply, when Keith was playing with Bouchard, the Oilers had lots of success, but they were getting very lucky. They had more pucks go in than should’ve, and they had goaltending better than they should’ve. The Oilers gave up a lot more scoring chances of quality than if Bouchard was playing with any other defenceman.
Moving onto the pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard, it’s very clear already this is a wildly beneficial symbiotic pairing. The sample size here is incredibly small looking at the analytics, so while we have some numbers to look at that show the Oilers are dominating the opposition while on the ice in every facet of the game when they’re on the ice together, we’re not going to dive into those numbers too much. What they do show, however, is the Oilers are generating tons of looks offensively, and not giving up much of anything defensively.
But everything I described above that were issues for Keith and Bouchard are actually what make Ekholm and Bouchard such a strong pairing. What’s apparent is Ekholm is still in his prime. He hasn’t lost a step at all, and his foot speed is strong enough that he puts himself into positions where he’s able to have the time and space to make smart decisions with the puck. He doesn’t struggle to clear out the front of the Oilers’ net, nor in retrieving the puck in the defensive zone, and he hasn’t lost the ability to transport the puck with his legs. He can skate it up and out of the Oilers’ zone no problem. You couple that with Bouchard’s ability to make strong first passes — whether that’s out of the Oilers’ zone, or to Ekholm — and his ability to skate it out himself, and suddenly the Oilers have a pairing that aren’t at a risk of getting hemmed in.
Last year, if Bouchard was trying to exit the Oilers’ zone and failed to do so, Keith’s boots couldn’t always cover for him and as a result, this reflected poorly on Bouchard. “Another sloppy turnover by the young defenceman!”
But when Keith was able to cover for him, the spotlight somehow shone brighter on Keith. “Look at that old wiley veteran back there!”
That’s where the trope of Keith carrying Bouchard came from.
In turn, what happened was so many overlooked the things that Bouchard himself was doing to make that pairing successful. The strong first pass. The ability to move the puck. His ability to create offence at elite levels. Something we’ve seen is his two-way game improving, too. While according to hockeyviz.com he’s generating even-strength offence at an eight percent rate above league average this year, he’s also contributing ES defence at a two percent rate above league average. His defensive number is a huge swing from last year where he contributed defence at a nine percent rate below league average.
And as good as Bouchard looks alongside Ekholm, a pairing the Oilers will likely roll with through the rest of the season, Bouchard’s most popular defensive partner this season has been a rookie in Philip Broberg, with whom he has played 330 minutes.
Across the NHL this season, a total of 78 pairings have played as many minutes. Here’s how Bouchard-Broberg rank among them:
- 63.65 shot attempts for per hour (19th).
- 46.42 shot attempts against per hour (4th).
- 57.83 percent shot attempt share (6th).
- 3.45 goals for per hour (10th).
- 3.26 goals against per hour (73rd).
- 51.35 percent goal share (48th).
- 3.29 expected goals for per hour (4th).
- 2.25 expected goals against per hour (10th).
- 59.41 percent expected goal share (4th).
- 10.22 on-ice shooting percentage (17th).
- 87.59 on-ice save percentage (78th).
What can we take away from this? Well, these two are driving play offensively at a tremendous rate together. They’re near the top of the league among defensive pairings in generating shot attempts and expected goals (remember, this is about shot quality), but are giving up a lot of goals against while on the ice. That accounts for a multitude of things like A) the goaltenders struggling with them out there and B) they’re still very young defencemen finding their way in the NHL. Even still, this is a sign that Evan Bouchard doesn’t require a veteran defenceman to look good. He’s done so this season with a rookie beside him. This is a tremendous sign for what could be the Oilers’ top defensive pairing years down the road.
It’s worth nothing through it all that over the last two years, he’s played 23.9 percent of his time against elite competition, 36.1 percent of his time against middle competition, and 40 percent of his time against bottom competition. He’s outscored elite competition 28-24 (53.85 percent), been outscored by middle competiton 29-43 (40.28 percent) and outscored bottom competition 48-37 (56.47).
In his own right, Evan Bouchard has shown an ability to be one of the best defencemen in the NHL in terms of his ability to produce offence, and he’s only… *checks notes* …23-years-old. There are 105 NHL defencemen who have played over 2000 minutes at 5×5 over the last two seasons. Here are some of his individual rates over that time, and how it ranks among those rearguards:
- 2241:09 TOI (65th).
- 15:27 (100th).
- 0.29 goals per hour (t-13th).
- 0.94 assists per hour (13th).
- 1.23 points per hour (t-13th).
- 43.40 IPP* (12th).
- 7.26 shots per hour (3nd).
- 2.03 takeaways per hour (5th).
* (IPP stands for Individual Point Percentage — the percentage of goals for that player’s team while that player is on the ice that the player earned a point on).
The list of defencemen is exhaustive and accounts for, on average, the top three defencemen on each team in the NHL and it includes all the top defencemen in the league. Whether you realize it or not, Bouchard’s already become one of the best offensive defencemen in the NHL.
The Oilers see what they have in Bouchard, too. Take a listen to these comments from GM Ken Holland after the Ekholm trade:
None of this article is to sit here and say that Evan Bouchard is one of the top defencemen in the league, or is ready for top pairing minutes. It’s also not saying that Duncan Keith was a bad player or that he didn’t help Bouchard. I firmly believe there was something there between the two that allowed them to click, but it’s also fair to sit here and say that they weren’t ideal partners for each other.
The truth of it all is that it is time to put some respect on Evan Bouchard’s name. He’s shown up to this point in his career that he’s a legitimate top-four defenceman and has taken steps in his game this season that has resulted in him becoming a much more well-rounded defenceman in his second year. Defencemen like Bouchard, who were elite offensive producers at the major junior level, can sometimes take a little bit more time to develop the defensive side of the game. It’s happening right before our eyes.
Patience will continue to be key as he develops, but with Mattias Ekholm as his new partner, I expect Bouchard to take significant steps forward in his game quickly.
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 email@example.com.
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