Oilers’ first-round pick Bouchard showing well at NHL level

Ty Rattie had a hat trick and Jesse Puljujarvi added two goals himself as the Oilers beat the Canucks 6-0 in pre-season action.

EDMONTON — Evan Bouchard is sitting on a folding chair in the middle of the Edmonton Oilers dressing room. No hooks for his gear, no name plate above his head, and frankly, right in the way.

He neatly stacks his equipment around, under and on top of that chair, like it’s the only stall Bouchard has ever known.

“I’m not complaining,” he smiled.

Complaining? The kid’s living the dream.

As Edmonton’s training camp unfolds, and the forwards score goals like it’s 1985 again, two things are happening on the back end:

Bouchard, the tenth overall pick in the June draft, has shown very well at this level. Especially with the puck on his stick, where he is already more proficient than many NHL defencemen.

And, Jason Garrison and Jakub Jerabek — two veterans who were supposed to give the Oilers a veteran, depth defenceman — haven’t impressed anyone here thus far. Garrison is on a PTO and has likely not done enough to earn a contract, while Jerabek was signed to a one-year, $1 million deal that is beginning to look regretful.

Unless one of Jerabek or Garrison wakes up Thursday morning as a better player than they have been thus far in training camp, the Oilers’ options are many:

• They can go with a Top 7 that includes both second-year pro Ethan Bear and the rookie Bouchard, something no NHL coach needing a good start would advise.

• They can leave Garrison unsigned, tell Jerabek he’s slated for AHL Bakersfield, and pray that he lands a job in Europe instead. Then GM Peter Chiarelli can scan the waiver wire as camps wind down in hopes of finding a D-man who can give you 45 NHL games this season.

• Or, they can send Bear to Bakersfield, stick with Bouchard and Jerabek, and if — after nine games — Bouchard is overmatched, then he can go back to OHL London and Bear can return. Or, Chiarelli can find a defenceman somewhere via trade.

In the meantime, everyone is happy to see Bouchard this close to playing as an NHL regular, even if the lack of competition has left the door open, somewhat.

“He’s playing really well, and he’s above his age level for sure,” said Kris Russell, Bouchard’s partner in a 6-0 drubbing of the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday. “Me at that age? I wasn’t close to what he is.

“Is he going to make it? That’s up to the coaches,” said Russell. “But, he is putting in a good foot. Sky’s the limit for this kid.”

This organization has a history of teenagers making the roster simply because the roster was so weak they couldn’t say no. They want to be past that in Edmonton, and for the most part they are. But Bouchard’s heady, confident play, and the fact that after their Top 5 the blue-line is wide open, combine to tempt the Oilers to keep Bouchard just a few months after he was drafted.

Then there is the very legitimate conversation about where his evolution is better served? Playing third pairing minutes in Edmonton, learning and honing his craft at an NHL level every day? Or returning to junior where he led the entire Canadian Hockey League in scoring by a defencemen last season, where he’d play 28 minutes a night as a junior version of Erik Karlsson?

“It’s the age old question,” began Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. “We’ve got to remember, Bouch (turns 19 in October). He’s played a lot of junior hockey already (three full seasons). If he does go back, he’ll go back to a very good program. But he’ll play a lot — to the point where he’ll start to manage his game.

“It is a Catch 22. For him to be productive here, he has to work on some of those areas of the game that get hard to work on at 27, 29 minutes a night. But, they’re easier to work on at 14 minutes a night.”

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So much of a defenceman’s game today is about retrieving a puck below the goal line, turning quickly and putting it on to the tape of a forward flying through the defensive zone, heading north. Bouchard appears to have that skill set. His passes are crisp and on the tape; his head is up.

But defending is also a necessity – especially on the road where opposing coaches will send their top line out to feast on a 19-year-old rookie. Can Bouchard survive without the puck long enough for his puck skills to justify his inclusion on an NHL roster?

Or will he cost the Oilers two goals for every one he helps create?

“You’ve got to defend. It’s something I’ve really focused hard on while I’ve been here,” he said.

Russell could be the perfect partner, a solid, responsible veteran who made the transition after a junior career that featured two 25-goal seasons.

“The hardest thing for me was not cheating. I cheated for offence in the Western League. If I gave up one I felt like I could get back two,” said Russell, who was drafted by the Columbus BLue Jackets where Ken Hitchcock was the head coach. There, the cheating ceased.

“I learned a lot from Hitch, defensively,” he said. “It’s a different animal, coming from junior. He’s a little above where I was — he’s a Top 10 pick. He’ll figure it out.”

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