What time is it in Evan Bouchard? Right on schedule.
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As a rookie last year Bouchard, now 23, proved he can handle Top 4 minutes in the playoffs. He and Duncan Keith did a fine job together as the Oilers advance to the Final Fouir.
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This year — despite raised expectations, despite the loss of partner Keith, and one major defensive slump, and a few notable misplays — he’s improved his play from last season, taking a step up in terms of his puck-moving, while cutting down on his defensive mistakes.
In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that it’s time the Oilers tried out Bouchard on the top-pairing with Darnell Nurse.
Let’s start with a look at how the Oilers have done in 5-on-5 play this year. Which defensive partnerships have helped the Oilers to the best results?
When it comes to goals for and against, the top pairing has been Bouchard teamed up with Darnell Nurse. They’ve only played together 100 minutes, a small sample size for sure, but they’ve done well in terms of goals plus-minus, seven goals for, four goals against, for a Goals For percentage of 63.6 per cent, the 26th highest such percentage this year for an NHL d-man pairing that has played together 100 minutes.
The next best defensive pairing for the Oilers in this same category also has Evan Bouchard on it, him and Philip Broberg, 14 goals for and 11 goals against in 234 minutes, a 56 Goals For percentage, ranking them 67th out of the 195 regular NHL d-man pairings.
Nurse has played most with Cody Ceci this year, 676 5-on-5 minutes together, with 29 goals for and 29 goals against, ranking them 105th out of 195 d-man pairings.
That’s not good enough for either Ceci or Nurse.
That’s not good enough for the Oilers.
Edmonton needs more out of its top pairing.
Is not a pairing of Nurse and Bouchard work a long try-out? They’ve had great success in the short term. Maybe they can keep it up longer term.
Nurse is a dynamic skater and effective puck carrier. He battles hard and can throw a mean hit. Bouchard is a slowly improving positional defender and outstanding passer of the puck.
This year at even strength when it comes to making long bomb stretch passes to send in teammates on dangerous rushes ending up as Grade A shots, Bouchard leads the way for Oil d-men with 16. Nurse has made 10 such passes, Brett Kulak, seven, Tyson Barrie has made three such passes, Cody Ceci and Philip Broberg two each.
As for a second-pairing, Broberg is showing signs of becoming a strong NHL defensive d-man, which is also Ceci’s strength. Could these two act as a shut-down pairing for the Oilers, with Bouchard-Nurse and Brett Kulak-Tyson Barrie in more of an offensive role? It is asking a lot of Broberg, yes. But why not give it a try in the next few weeks? It could provide valuable knowledge to Oilers management as the trade deadline approaches.
When the Oilers come off their break just now, that’s what I’d like to see.
Of course, not everyone’s going to agree with my assessment of Bouchard or the other Oilers d-men.
Some like their d-men to fire the puck up the boards and hammer opponents into same. The want Big Bobby Clobbers out there, not Fancy Dans. I like hard and aggressive d-men as well. But not every d-man on a team has to be that kind of physical force for the team to succeed. Elite puck movers are also necessary, and that’s what Bouchard is.
Defenceman are the toughest players to rate and rank because it’s hard to measure defensive prowess, and defensive prowess is so crucial to the value of a d-man.
At the Cult we make an attempt to do so by going over video of every Grade A shot for and against the Oilers. We study each sequence repeatedly and try to ascertain which players did their jobs and which players failed to do so.
This way of rating players suggests Bouchard is a better player than last season, making slightly more major contributions to Grade A shots for and slightly fewer mistakes on Grade A shots against. Nurse’s offensive play is about the same as last year, but he’s stepped up his defensive play. Ceci is down a bit on defence. For a rookie, Broberg is crushing it so far, but we won’t know for sure about his value until he consistently succeeds against tougher competition.
But what we’re seeing with these four players, Nurse, Ceci, Bouchard and Broberg, are the makings of a solid Top 4 defence.
Not an elite one.
Not one of the best in the NHL, not yet.
But a solid group heading into the 2023 playoffs, one that is at least as good as the Top 4 last year.
That’s how I see it. How about you?
At the Cult
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