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Oilers’ Evan Bouchard can become bigger playoff force by playing beyond comfort zone

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Photo credit:Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Sean Panganiban
14 days ago
For the third season in a row, the Edmonton Oilers will face the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. While the Oilers absolutely should not take the Kings lightly, playing them again might be music to defenceman Evan Bouchard’s ears. Last postseason, the blueliner tallied two goals and eight assists in six games in the first round against them.
Overall, he had an offensive outburst last playoffs, finishing with 17 points in 12 games, leading all blueliners in points. To put into perspective just how dominant he was offensively, the second-highest scoring defenceman was the Florida Panthers’ Brandon Montour, who recorded 13 points in 21 games.
Moreover, the 24-year-old carried over his point surge into the 2023-24 campaign, finishing with 82 regular-season points, the 55th-highest point total ever recorded by a defenceman in a single NHL season, a remarkable achievement. Additionally, on April 6th against the Calgary Flames, he broke an Oilers record by surpassing Paul Coffey for the most game-winning goals scored by a blueliner, with seven.

NHL Executive Highlighted Potential Flaw in Bouchard

Yet, Bouchard does have his drawbacks, as do most young blueliners. For every ‘Bouch-Bomb‘ or slick saucer pass to spring his forwards on a breakaway, there’s the occasional giveaway and defensive lapse. However, rational minds realize that these issues come par for the course—for every incredible offensive play, be prepared for an occasional defensive mishap.
That said, in a recent article by The Athletic, they interviewed a seven-person anonymous panel consisting of an NHL GM, four high-level front office executives, a scout and an agent, who provided insight on all 16 playoff teams. In doing so, an NHL executive unveiled a strategy to shut down the Oilers and, shared shortcomings on the back end and highlighted a flaw in Bouchard:
“The easiest way to shut down the Oilers is preventing McDavid from picking up steam in the neutral zone. The way you prevent McDavid from picking up steam is to mess with the way they do their breakouts and (defensive zone) exits. That starts with their retrievals. Ekholm, good f—ing player, but he can’t make plays on his backhand and Bouchard won’t retrieve the puck (in the corners).
We had a good meeting about that before we played Edmonton. We executed that strategy perfectly and we just abused them. If I’m going up against the Oilers and I identify that vulnerability, that is what I’m going after.”
The NHL executive’s team affiliation is unknown, but here are some thoughts on their insight. Preventing Connor McDavid from picking up steam in the neutral zone is an obvious move, and I’m not aware of any data that shows Mattias Ekholm’s effectiveness on his backhand. However, it’s interesting that they openly conveyed the statement that “Bouchard won’t retrieve the puck (in the corners).”
Firstly, what’s the logic behind disclosing that information as it reveals your strategy? Secondly, it isn’t necessarily true, as the blueliner does, in fact, retrieve pucks. Oilersnation’s NHL_Sid wrote an excellent article recently showcasing that Bouchard has good puck retrievals in the defensive zone. It was outlined that the blueliner has a 67.5% success rate on opposition dump-in retrievals, which is second-best on the team.
However, what that NHL executive might be implying is that there are instances when Bouchard doesn’t fully engage or shies away from physicality in the corners, and there are some recent examples of this. On March 16, the Oilers went into overtime against the Colorado Avalanche. The puck trickled into Bouchard’s corner, and both he and Nathan MacKinnon slowly went after it. The Oilers’ defender did not attempt to impede the Avs’ forward, who then centered the puck, resulting in an Artturi Lehkonen overtime winner.
A week later, the Oilers’ blueliner had another soft play in the corner against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The puck was redirected into his corner again, and Auston Matthews slipped past Bouchard without any contact, and centered the puck, resulting in a goal against.
In saying that, there are instances when Bouchard doesn’t sense danger, possibly due to his generally cool, calm and collected demeanour, which enables him to make his high-end offensive plays under pressure. Yet, despite leading all defencemen in points last postseason (17), Natural Stat Trick shows his goal share at 5v5 was only 47%, meaning, there’s obvious room for improvement defensively heading into the upcoming playoffs.
One way to improve in that area is for him to step out of his ‘calm and collected’ comfort zone more frequently. That means ramping up his intensity/physicality in the defensive zone this postseason, especially in the corners, which may also increase his overall awareness and prevent the opposition from getting a free pass, as hinted by the anonymous NHL executive.
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Bouchard isn’t exactly a shrinking violet either. He finished the regular season with 71 hits, ranking 11th on the team. Moreover, there have been occasions where he hasn’t hesitated to throw a punch in a scrum or get a glove in the opposition’s face.
Additionally, a recent example of his willingness to assert himself physically was against the Vancouver Canucks on April 13. J.T Miller hit Vincent Desharnais from behind and Bouchard responded with a cross-check that sent Miller to the ice.

Oilers Should Use NHL Executive’s Comments as Motivation

So, how can Bouchard consistently dial in that intensity that he shows on occasion, this postseason? Well, the fact that an NHL executive publicly hinted at a deliberate strategy to target him by putting the puck in his corner, implying weakness in his play, should already serve as motivation material.
Also, if I was head coach Kris Knoblauch, I’d use the part they said about, “We executed that strategy perfectly and we just abused them. If I’m going up against the Oilers and I identify that vulnerability, that is what I’m going after” and write it on the pregame board. I’d write it to let my players know that a) an NHL executive actually thought their team ‘abused’ the Oilers, which is somewhat of a jab, b) to bring awareness of the opposition’s potential game plan and, c) to ultimately light a fire under all of them, especially Bouchard.
Nevertheless, the Oakville, ON native is set to carry over his phenomenal offensive production from the regular season into the playoffs, where he has already proven himself as a force to be reckoned with offensively. Overall, Bouchard, who led the Oilers’ blue line in ice time during the regular season, is an undeniable weapon from the back end. Yet, if he can step out of his comfort zone and increase his battle level a notch or two, Edmonton’s chances of going the distance in the playoffs increase greatly.
With that in mind, what’s your outlook for Bouchard this upcoming postseason?

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