How Evan Bouchard has faced some awful puck luck, and why it’s important to remain patient with him
Photo credit:© Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
By NHL_Sid1 year ago
As the Oilers move to a 10-10 record in the first quarter of the season and slip out of a playoff spot, there’s plenty of blame going around. The majority of it is deserved, as the whole team has struggled.
Edmonton’s offence, defence, and goaltending can all be at fault. The Oilers rank just 29th in the league in 5v5 goals per hour and 27th in 5v5 goals against per hour, meaning they’re struggling to score and they’re struggling to defend. Of course, Jack Campbell’s poor play hasn’t helped either.
However, I’ve seen a lot of people place a considerable amount of blame on Evan Bouchard. Some have pointed to him as one of Edmonton’s worst defencemen this season, with some going further to say that he should be a healthy scratch or even potentially traded.
Has Bouchard been spectacular in any sense? Certainly not.
But for a large variety of reasons, I believe some of the criticism against him is unwarranted and not entirely justified. In this piece, I’ll outline why Bouchard has played much better than his production totals or plus-minus suggests, and why Edmonton should remain patient with him.
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise
Bouchard has been one of the league’s unluckiest defencemen
Hockey tends to be one of the most random sports out there and can be heavily influenced by luck, especially in smaller sample sizes. At the start of every single season, people always overreact to a certain player’s performance while completely ignoring the luck aspect.
Oilers fans have seen this firsthand with the likes of players like Zack Kassian and Alex Chiasson, who went on SH% heaters early in the season and earned multi-year contracts as a result, but predictably regressed.
Currently, the opposite is occurring with Bouchard.
A commonly used statistic to evaluate puck luck is PDO, the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and on-ice save percentage. A PDO at 1.0 indicates average on-ice luck, a PDO at or above 1.1-1.2 or above indicates typically means good luck, and a PDO below 1.0 generally means a player has been unlucky.
This season, Bouchard’s PDO is at an awful 0.94.
Bouchard is creating plenty of shots and scoring chances, as he currently leads the team in expected goal differential. However, the reason for his unimpressive production totals is due to his incredibly low on-ice shooting percentage. Only four defencemen in the league have had their on-ice shots go in at lower rates than Bouchard. The story is similar to his on-ice save percentage, and the result is an awful goal differential.
This is unsustainable. As mentioned previously, it’s quite common for players to experience extreme luck (good and bad) in smaller samples near the beginning of the season, and about ~95% of those players end up regressing to the mean as the season goes on and/or in the subsequent season.
As an example, here’s a look at every defencemen that had an on-ice save percentage lower than 5% from October through November in 2021-22, and how their oiSH% looked for the remainder of the year.
Every single player saw an increase in on-ice shooting percentage, and the majority of them saw a very notable improvement, with their oiSH% increasing by over 2x their prior oiSH%.
Furthermore, here’s a look at every defenceman that had an on-ice save percentage under 89.9% in 2021-22, and how their oiSV% looked for the remainder of the season.
In fairness, some of them still had a poor oiSV% in the later half, but that’s largely due to the awful goaltending of the teams those players played on (e.g. Larsson with Seattle, Chychrun with Arizona, etc). The fact remains that every single player’s oiSV% still improved, and most of them had an above-average or even great oiSV% in the remaining months.
I just chose 2021-22 as it’s the most recent full season, but you could choose any NHL season with this data available, and each time, you’d see similar results. Simply put, unless you’re the worst player of all time, a 0.94 PDO just will not sustain over a significant sample. Consequently, it’s exceedingly likely that Bouchard will positively regress. If Bouchard was at an average PDO, he would have been on-ice for roughly 9-10 more goals for, and 3-5 fewer goals against.
Additionally, we’ve already seen Bouchard display tremendous offensive potential in the NHL. Last season, Bouchard had 31 5v5 points, ranking 11th in the league among all defencemen. Since 2007, only four other defencemen under 22 have produced over 31 points at 5v5 in a single season.
Furthermore, Bouchard’s impact on generating quality scoring chances this year has been excellent. This season, Bouchard’s isolated impact on expected goals for (RAPM xGF) ranks 4th among all defencemen. He’s already proven that he can produce and generate 5v5 offence at the highest level.
He’s continuing to generate scoring chances at similar rates to last season, so the most plausible explanation for the decline in his production is his exceptionally low oiSH%.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, it’s near inevitable that Bouchard will begin producing more soon at some point.
Criticism towards Bouchard and his blocked shots is overblown
Now, some may point to Bouchard and his supposed inability to get shots through to the net as the cause for his low on-ice shooting percentage, but is that really the case?
Here’s a look at every Oilers defenceman and what percentage of their shot attempts hit the net.
Ceci and Kulak are getting 50% of their shots blocked, while Bouchard has 48.1% of his shots blocked. In the entire league, Bouchard ranks 72nd out of 166 defencemen with at least 200 TOI in terms of shot on goal%. Don’t know about you, but to me, that doesn’t sound like a major issue.
Furthermore, Bouchard is at a 6.87 5v5 shots on goal per 60; no Oilers defenceman is above 4.94. Among NHL defencemen with a minimum of 200 TOI, he ranks 17th in the league; Bouchard is still getting more shots through to the net than any other defenceman in the roster, and the majority of the NHL. Consequently, I believe this has been an exaggerated issue.
Is this something he could work on? Absolutely, shot placement can definitely be an area for improvement. However, just because there’s been a couple of noticeable plays where his shot attempt was blocked, it isn’t entirely indicative of how effective he actually is at getting his shots through to the net. It just visually seems like all of his shots are getting blocked because he simply shoots more than any other Oilers defenceman.
Some may argue that even if Bouchard isn’t having a significant portion of his shot attempts blocked, taking a high amount of point shots is a concern itself, but no Oilers defenceman has been on-ice for more high-danger scoring chances at 5v5. So yes, while it would likely be a wise idea for Bouchard to shoot less low-quality shot attempts from the point, it clearly isn’t hampering his ability to generate high-quality chances.
In my opinion, Bouchard’s shooting is nowhere near a significant or troublesome concern, especially in comparison to other major issues on this roster.
Bouchard is flawed defensively, but he has taken steps forward this season
As I wrote in a piece in the summer, Bouchard’s primary area of improvement is his defensive play.
Last season, his isolated impact on preventing scoring chances (RAPM xGA) ranked in the 2nd percentile; put more simply, Bouchard’s defensive impact was only better than a mere 2% of the NHL’s defencemen. It’s clear he had a lot of room to improve, most notably at defending rush chances and defending in his own zone.
However, his defensive chance suppression metrics have considerably improved thus far, as seen below:
Bouchard’s xGA and CA impacts have markedly improved. Put differently, Bouchard has been on-ice at a lower rate of scoring chances, and a markedly lower rate of shot attempts than last season. The Oilers improve defensively with Bouchard on-ice in these aspects.
His +/- may look awful, but as mentioned previously, that’s influenced by a very low on-ice save percentage. Bouchard has been making fewer mistakes than last season, but the mistakes he does make end up in the back of the net, making them seem more visible and noticeable. A player’s impact on goals allowed can be heavily influenced by goaltending, especially in limited samples, which is why I put more emphasis on scoring chance and shot suppression.
One of the primary reasons for Bouchard’s improved shot suppression metrics is that he’s been one of Edmonton’s best entry defenders. The league-average zone denial% is 10.9%; most of Edmonton’s defencemen rank below average (Nurse is at an awful 3.8%) aside from Kulak and Bouchard, who places at a 15.6% zone denial%.
Whereas the entire team has struggled to defend the neutral zone, Bouchard has been quite strong at denying entry attempts from opposing forwards and preventing chances off the rush.
With that said, there is a concerning trend in his defensive metrics. In simpler terms, a player’s CA impact indicates how well they prevent shot volume. xGA can essentially be viewed as the combination of shot volume and quality. As seen above, Bouchard’s CA impact is outstanding this season, but his xGA impact is much less impressive.
From this, you can draw the conclusion that Bouchard is great at defending quantity, but not so much at defending quality. His CA results are likely due to his ability to effectively deny entries and maintain possession, but the dropoff in quality is due to his performance in his own zone. He’s prone to errors, often makes poor coverage decisions, and is especially weak at winning puck battles and retrieving pucks in corners.
Perhaps his oiSV% may be affected by this. In some instances, if a player is very poor at preventing quality, they will always have a lower oiSV% than expected. Bouchard could very well be one of those players, and although his oiSV% will still positively regress to some degree, it may not reach as high as we think.
Still, as shown above, his current oiSV% has a very high possibility of being unsustainable. Furthermore, Bouchard is just 23. The majority of young defencemen tend to be imperfect in their own zone and are often prone to making errors.
The pros with Bouchard outweigh the cons, as he already provides various valuable skills at the NHL level. He’s excellent at driving scoring chances through his transitional and outlet passing abilities, and as seen by last season, he can produce at high levels at 5v5. Furthermore, he’s already improved defensively to a great extent as seen above. He’s been Edmonton’s best entry defender this season and is superb at defending shot volume against. A lot of people may harp on him for lack of physicality, but even then, he ranks first among Edmonton defencemen in hits per 60 this year. He’s accomplished all of this in just his second NHL season.
Not many defencemen excel at defending in their own zone early in their careers. Mistakes and errors are typically an inevitable part of the process of development for young defencemen. It’s important to let them learn through those mistakes, because it will help them in the long run, and currently, those mistakes aren’t affecting Bouchard from helping Edmonton tilt the ice in their favor.
It’s crucial to have patience with him. There’s a ton of potential and talent there.
Two things can be true; Bouchard has areas for improvement, but he’s been much, much better than his raw box score totals suggest.
The influence of PDO is far larger than many choose to admit, and it absolutely affects how a player looks on the ice. When a player sees a very low percentage of the chances they create go into the net, while all of their mistakes end up in the back of their net, it’s evident that the things they do wrong will be more visible than the things they do correctly. I think that’s the major reason for the frustration surrounding Bouchard for many fans.
Eventually, Bouchard will regress positively, produce at a higher rate, and be on-ice for fewer goals against to some degree.
Bouchard has been a strong offensive player this season, and it will become more apparent as his oiSH% regresses to the mean. As mentioned earlier, a 3.9 oiSH% is exceptionally unsustainable, especially considering that Bouchard already produced at a high rate at 5v5 last season.
In regards to his defensive play, he must clean up his DZ performance, reduce the number of errors he makes, and overall, improve at preventing quality chances. With that said, he’s already taken steps forward defensively this year, and I believe he can further improve.
There are many people to blame for Edmonton’s recent struggles, but I would not place Evan Bouchard near the top of that list.
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