Robert Thomas spent the majority of his major junior career playing on the same London Knights team as Edmonton Oilers prospect Evan Bouchard, during which time the latter demonstrated to the former just how adept he is at finding forwards coming out of the defensive zone.
“Playing with him as a centre, you’ve just got to find that little bit of space and it’s right on your tape,” says Thomas. “[He’s] so easy to play with.”
So is a certain No. 97 on the team Bouchard will one day be starring for. And the time when Bouchard — a six-foot-two, right-shot defenceman — will be starting breakouts by sliding the puck to Connor McDavid, the human afterburner, may not be far off.
With an October, 1999 birthday, Bouchard had to wait an extra year before being selected 10th overall by the Oilers in Dallas at last June’s NHL Draft. It was a pick the Oilers appeared quite willing to move until it became clear the best way to address some blue line issues might not be trading futures for an established pro, but by selecting a guy who turns 19 a couple weeks into the season and just may have the game to step in and contribute right away.
“I think he’s got all the tools to do it,” says Thomas, who was in Toronto with his pal for the NHLPA Rookie Showcase on Sunday. “If he has a good camp, I don’t see why not.”
Thomas, who’ll be trying to make the St. Louis Blues himself come September, isn’t the only person high on Bouchard’s immediate future. Right after the Oilers drafted the Oakville, Ont., boy, Sportsnet’s prospect guru, Sam Cosentino, suggested Bouchard was a strong candidate to at least get a look in Edmonton the way the club’s 2017 first-rounder did last fall.
“I believe he’s going to be a lot like Kailer Yamamoto,” Cosentino said of Bouchard on Sportsnet’s Tape to Tape podcast. “He’s going to be given an opportunity to start with the big club right out of camp and let him determine his fate the rest of the way through.”
Bouchard says cracking the big club has been the goal since the minute Edmonton called his name, though he’s trying to keep his famously mobile feet grounded for now.
“It’s something you try not to think about too much,” says Bouchard, who got a text from McDavid soon after joining the Oilers family. “The only thing I try to focus on is being ready to fill whatever role they need me to.”
He certainly did it all in London. Bouchard put up an astonishing 25 goals and 67 assists for 87 points in 67 contests, leading all Ontario Hockey League defenceman in scoring. Nicolas Hague of the Mississauga Steelheads, a Vegas Golden Knights pick, was the only D-man to get within 10 points of Bouchard’s total and the only other one to get within 20 was Guelph Storm and San Jose Shark property Ryan Merkley.
While the numbers pop, it’s critical to remember that Bouchard is never out there in blind pursuit of goals. Ask him to describe his game and he talks about making good passes in all three zones and taking care of the back end. Thomas, too, mentions how Bouchard manages the home front first, doing a good job of getting the puck back, then moving it out with that vision and poise.
As long as Bouchard can handle himself at five-on-five at the NHL level, it’s easy to see a scenario where he plays modest even-strength minutes and uses his fantastic offensive instincts to try and boost an Oilers power play that was the league’s worst at 14.8 per cent last season.
Off the ice, Thomas describes Bouchard as a funny guy who can be as selective with his words as his passes. He’s always a good time to be around, though, according to his buddy and — perhaps sooner rather than later — fans of the Oilers could really be enjoying his company.