logo

How the Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard pair has been vital to the Oilers’ playoff run

alt
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
19 days ago
For over a decade, Edmonton’s blueline has been a focal point of criticism by many, and rightfully so. It’s a significant reason why, for eight consecutive seasons, the Oilers failed to win a single game past the second round of the playoffs despite Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on their roster. Defence matters, a lot.
But, the structure of Edmonton’s defensive core took a massive turn following the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm in February of 2023.
With a 3-1 victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, the Oilers are just a single win away from the Stanley Cup finals. As usual, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl lead the way, ranking atop the league in points, but a crucial factor behind their current playoff run is the performance of their top defensive pairing – Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm.
Although the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Oilers in the second round in 2023, Ekholm has flourished on a defensive pair with Bouchard from the moment he arrived in Rogers Place last season. This year, they have managed to take their performance to a whole new level.
In 17 playoff games thus far, Ekholm and Bouchard have played 283 minutes together at 5-on-5. Edmonton is up 18 to 8 in goals in these minutes, equating to a phenomenal 69 percent goal differential. Without either of them on-ice, Edmonton has been out-scored 13 to 25, a brutal 34 percent goal share.
Put differently, Edmonton’s goal differential improves by a whopping 22 goals when Edmonton’s top pairing steps on the ice. In just 17 games, that is outstanding.
This isn’t just some PDO heater or a run fuelled by unstainable luck either – the pairing still operates at a fantastic 62 percent expected goal differential, holding a 68 to 39 edge in high-danger scoring chances. Edmonton completely outplays the opposition when this duo steps on-ice in both goals and chances.
In the 2023 playoffs, Darnell Nurse averaged 18:01 minutes at 5-on-5, first on the team. But the Oilers were out-scored at 5-on-5 in those playoffs, with the Nurse and Ceci pairing possessing a mere 42 percent goal share as the team lost to Vegas in Round 2.
That has changed in Edmonton’s current playoff run. This spring, Bouchard has played the most minutes per game on the team at 5-on-5, averaging 19:45 TOI, while Ekholm ranks second at 17:56. 
Not only has the Ekholm and Bouchard pair managed to elevate their performance, but a massive difference between the 2023 and 2024 playoffs for Edmonton is the level of trust in this pairing from the coaching staff. Ekholm and Bouchard are now clearly the Oilers’ de-facto top pair, and granting them increased minutes has paid dividends.
“Ekky and Bouch, I don’t think you can talk about one without the other,” said head coach Kris Knoblauch following Edmonton’s victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 2 a few weeks back, a game in which Bouchard played nearly 30 minutes. “The two of them have been a remarkable pairing and relied on heavily.”
Let’s dive into some video, taking a closer look at examples of just how important Ekholm and Bouchard have been on both ends of the ice in these playoffs.

Failed to load video.

The first example is from the eventual overtime winner in Game 1 of this series. Bouchard earns the primary assist on the goal, but watch the entire shift, starting from puck drop. The play begins with a faceoff win by McDavid, and a Bouchard exit / RNH tip-in gets the puck deep into the offensive zone. Dallas successfully retrieves the puck and exits the zone, and at one point, there’s essentially a brief 3-on-2 for Dallas.
But, at this point (the video is intentionally paused at this moment), Bouchard is in a good, aggressive position at the blue line. As Benn enters the zone, Bouchard gives him little space to make a play, causing him to make a weaker pass to a teammate that Ekholm easily breaks up. McDavid can then pick up the puck, and RNH dumps it back into the offensive zone. This time, RNH successfully recovers the puck and moves it to Bouchard, who fires a shot-pass to McDavid in the slot for the goal. 
Bouchard’s pass here is superb, but he also deserves credit for the excellent gap control that initiated the transitional play. In my mind, this is a very underrated aspect of his defensive game.

Failed to load video.

The next play is Bouchard’s game-tying goal in Game 4. Dallas attempts to move up the ice and into Edmonton’s defensive zone, but Johnston fails to move it past Bouchard. Ekholm retrieves the loose puck, passing it out of the zone. As McDavid enters the offensive zone, he turns it over, and Dallas attempts another transitional play up the ice, flipping the puck into Edmonton’s zone. But Ekholm retrieves the puck and passes it out yet again. Hyman and RNH enter the offensive zone, McDavid gets a quality rush chance, and Bouchard eventually buries the rebound.
Bouchard got the goal, but Ekholm’s two retrievals and zone exits began the entire sequence.

Failed to load video.

Here is another instance of a goal on which Ekholm didn’t get a point on, but made a crucial play leading up to it. Heiskanen and Robertson attempt to move the puck up the ice and into their offensive zone, but Ekholm is up hard on his gap at the blue line, resulting in a failed entry by Dallas and a rush goal by Draisaitl the other way. Once again, Ekholm’s entry denial here was key.
Now, I have discussed Ekholm and Bouchard’s 5-on-5 play as a pair in great detail in this piece, but I would also like to analyze their individual impact on special teams. In these playoffs, Edmonton has an out-standing +15 goal differential on the power-play and penalty-kill combined, with a 35 percent PP% that ranks second in the league, and a 94 percent PK% that ranks first in the league. Bouchard and Ekholm have had significant impacts on the power-play and penalty-kill respectively.
Let’s begin with Ekholm’s impact on the PK, a crucial factor behind Edmonton’s success in these playoffs. Dallas has yet to score a single PP goal in this series, as Edmonton has killed 25 consecutive penalties. Once again, I believe one key reason for this is deployment.
In the regular season, Ceci and Nurse averaged the most minutes on the PK. But in the playoffs, Ekholm has played more minutes on the penalty kill than any other Oiler player, which has clearly been a wise move by the coaching staff.
Here is a compilation of three short clips from Game 5:

Failed to load video.

On the first one, Dallas has a sloppy entry into the zone on the PP. Ceci makes a nifty retrieval, and Ekholm successfully clears the zone. Later on this PK, which is at the tail-end of the first period, Ekholm does an excellent job pressuring Duchene, giving him minimal space throughout the shift and breaking up his pass attempt with his stick. Eventually the PP ends, and as Dallas fails to generate a quality shot, Thomas Harley fires a weak attempt from the point, which misses the net. Ekholm retrieves the puck and moves it to Hyman, who successfully holds onto the puck to finish the period with a 1-0 lead. 
In the third example, there’s a puck battle in the corners during a Dallas PP, which Dallas wins. They move the puck down low, and Duchene attempts to pass it into the slot, but Ekholm makes a key sliding block, breaking up the pass once again and allowing Ceci to clear the puck.
These aren’t particularly flashy plays, and you won’t see them pop up on highlight reels. But consistently making these sorts of plays makes a huge difference in the grand scheme of things in terms of goal and shot suppression.
Ekholm played 2:37 on the PK in Game 5, and was on ice for a mere two shots against. Out of Edmonton’s regular penalty-killers, none of them have been on ice for fewer short-handed shots nor scoring chances against per 60 than Ekholm. His play has been indispensable to the success of Edmonton’s PK.
Moving onto Bouchard, his excellent power-play abilities were certainly on display in Game 5.

Failed to load video.

On Edmonton’s first goal, RNH scores off the rebound of Bouchard’s shot, which has been a deadly weapon for Edmonton. Per NHL EDGE, no defenceman has more shots above 145 kilometers per hour than Bouchard, this being yet another one. On the second goal, RNH scores once again, this time off a Draisaitl pass, but the entire play begins off a gorgeous stretch pass by Bouchard in the defensive zone. 
Bouchard has 14 even-strength points, good for second in the league, and 10 power-play points, third in the league. His overall 25 points in 17 games ranks first among all defenders by a hefty margin and third among all skaters. These playoffs have established that Bouchard’s shooting and passing abilities are truly among the best in the league.
Now, a common retort to the overall performance/results of Ekholm and (especially) Bouchard is that they spend so much time with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Especially outside of Edmonton, it’s not uncommon to hear claims that their metrics are inflated by significant playing time with those two.
But while they undoubtedly benefit from playing next to Edmonton’s superstars, the claim that their results are solely propped up by McDavid is a lazy and dishonest one, not backed up by factual evidence. Take a look at McDavid and Draisaitl’s results with and without the Ekholm and Bouchard pair on-ice:
McDavid has produced a fantastic 68 percent goal differential and a 64 percent expected goal differential with the Ekholm/Bouchard pair, but without that pair, McDavid has not been on the ice for a single 5v5 goal in the entire playoffs. Just take that in for a moment.
The story is similar with Draisaitl, who dominates goals and chances with Edmonton’s top-pair, but his line has failed to control possession without them. There’s a reason why Edmonton’s coaching staff plays Bouchard and Ekholm with Edmonton’s top forwards at such a high rate.
Of course, one could argue this says more about the quality of the rest of Edmonton’s defensive core, as Nurse and Ceci have struggled, but the quality of the numbers that McDavid and Draisaitl have produced with the Ekholm/Bouchard pair border on historical levels. For comparison, Colorado’s top unit of Nathan MacKinnon, Devon Toews, and Cale Makar – which is very good – have produced a 55 percent goal share and a 53 percent expected goal share in these playoffs, considerably below the +65% metrics that Edmonton’s top unit operates at.
Even without McDavid on-ice, Ekholm and Bouchard operated at a 60 percent goal differential and 56 percent expected goal differential this season. Simply put, Bouchard and Ekholm’s ability to defend the blueline, retrieve pucks, exit the defensive zone, and move it around in the offensive zone has undeniably benefited McDavid and Draisaitl. The notion that either of them is solely a “product” of McDavid and Draisaitl is not supported by any evidence.
In total, there have been 38 different defensive pairs that have played a minimum of 75 minutes at 5-on-5 in these playoffs. Ekholm and Bouchard, unsurprisingly, rank atop all of them in on-ice goal differential by a significant margin. 
All-in-all, the Ekholm acquisition has been absolutely huge for Edmonton, completely reshaping Edmonton’s blueline. Edmonton’s second and third pairings have experienced struggles in these playoffs, particularly the Nurse pairing, but so far, the excellence of Ekholm and Bouchard has completely outweighed it. 
Perhaps the most significant difference between the current Oilers roster, and the rosters of past decades, is that Edmonton now possesses one of the league’s best defensive pairs, and statistically speaking, they have been the best defensive pair in the NHL in 2023-24. After years of mediocre defensive cores that struggled to move the puck up the ice and out of their own end, the Oilers now possess two defencemen that are absolutely elite at transporting the puck to their superstars, while additionally excelling defensively.
Bouchard has truly emerged into one of the NHL’s top defencemen, and could even get Conn Smythe votes if the Oilers reach that far, while Ekholm continues to sustain a reputation of being one of the most well-rounded players in the league. 
As Edmonton is just a single win away from reaching the cup finals for the first time in nearly two decades, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have led the way as usual, but make no mistake, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm have been vital to Edmonton’s success thus far. If the team goes all the way this year, you can expect that to continue moving forward.
*All data used in the article via Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out these posts...