He’s taken big steps already — 19 points in 12 playoff games by a defenceman last season is, shall we say, huge — but the Edmonton Oilers are looking for Evan Bouchard to rise to another level.
And with top-pairing blueliner Mattias Ekholm out of action due to injury to start training camp, Bouchard taking on more playing time is crucial as the Oilers begin another chase for glory.
Head coach Jay Woodcroft said he expects Bouchard, who averaged 18-and-a-half minutes of ice time per game in the regular season in 2022-23, will be able to play more.
“He’s somebody that now is in the life stage of his career where he’s past the rookie lessons that, over the last few years, he’s been able to learn at the National Hockey League level,” Woodcroft told media Monday following a morning training camp session. “We think he’s ready for a jump in minutes. We think we can ice six and sometimes seven defencemen who can all command their fair share of ice time at this level. For him, it’s natural that where he’s at in his career is that he will command a few more minutes this year.”
Bouchard rose to the occasion in the 2023 post-season, posting the aforementioned statistics to lead all NHL defencemen, in the wake of the Oilers trading their top-scoring blueliner and power-play quarterback in Tyson Barrie to the Nashville Predators for Ekholm.
With Elkholm sitting out with a hip flexor injury, the Oilers will test pairing Bouchard with Darnell Nurse, long the Oilers’ workhorse on the team’s back-end who’s been averaging about 24 minutes of ice time per game over the past five seasons.
Bouchard, who was paired with Ekholm following the latter’s arrival from Nashville, said the key to adjusting to a new partner is “getting to know” the other’s habits.
“I got to do that with Ekholm last year,” Bouchard said. “If it’s going to be with Nurse this year, I get to know his habits, he gets to know mine. I think that’s what makes a good defensive pairing.”
Nurse said he expects playing with Bouchard will create more scoring opportunities.
“When you have a partner that can see and make plays the way that he can, it opens up a little bit as well on my side, maybe jumping into a play where he can hit me back,” Nurse said, remarking on Bouchard’s “even-keeled” personality. “You have a lot of trust when you go over on a D-to-D pass, and he’s going to make that next play up to our forwards. That’ll open some things up on my side, too.”
Bouchard, who worked on improving his physical fitness over the off-season — both Woodcroft and Nurse Monday remarked on Bouchard’s high fitness — said he believes quickness is key to being a more effective defender as he further evolves his play and takes on more ice time.
“A lot of it comes down to skating, really,” he said. “Closing things quicker. The more you can close things quicker, the less time it gives them. Anticipation is obviously a big thing.”