With Oilers focused on results, Bouchard must turn potential into reality

Oilers top prospect Evan Bouchard discusses how important this preseason is to showcase his talents, but knows it’s even more important to show that he's a team player first.

EDMONTON — Evan Bouchard came to training camp more fit than ever, testing right near the top of all rookies. A nice show of commitment for a first-round draft pick who turns pro this season, right?

“You know, I’ve seen lots of guys who are amazing in the gym who aren’t good on the ice. And I’ve seen guys that are terrible in the gym who are real good on the ice,” said a dismissive Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “It doesn’t really matter. You want to be in good shape, but I think all of us are in pretty good shape.

“Good for him for coming in and having good fitness testing. But he’s got to have a good camp on the ice.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up the collective attitude of anyone who has spent any time around these Oilers. Stats are nice, being in shape is great, and potential is also a handy attribute.

But it’s about winning, and winning now. Bring it on the ice, or don’t bring it all, is what McDavid is saying.

Harsh? Maybe.

Realistic? Absolutely.

Then there was this clinical observation from Dave Tippett, a head coach who sees a top pairing defenceman in Bouchard — once the prospect figures out that the NHL game is played with urgency. Not at the comfortable pace that Bouchard mastered as an Ontario Hockey League all-star in London.

“He’s a smart enough kid that he knows what he has to do to (make the NHL),” Tippett said. “Once you get to the NHL level, if you don’t go back and get those pucks you’re not going to have the time you need to make those plays.

“He’s going from a junior mentality, where he can really just do whatever he wants, to an NHL mentality where you’re going to have a lot more pressure. But he’s still got to make those plays that are at the essence of his game.”

Here’s what Bouchard can do: He is that patient holder of the puck with the panic level that is higher than most. That player whose threshold for divesting himself of the puck is elite — even at the NHL level — so it is important that he have the puck, with time to make use of his considerable puck-moving skills.

“Retrieval. Getting to pucks quicker. Skating,” Bouchard said. “It all ties in to wanting to spend more time with the puck, and less time chasing it. Raise your intensity every time you’re out there.”

Bouchard is, as a human being, somewhat of a slow-twitch guy. He thinks before he speaks. He considers before he moves. Whatever a guy like McDavid — who does everything at warp speed — is, Bouchard is the opposite.

“He’s got ice in his veins, watching everyone fly around, and he’s just standing there and movin’ the puck,” marvelled Tippett. “He’s got to get to the puck quicker, to make sure he’s got the puck more. Bouchard, the more he has the puck, the more good things are going to happen. So, go get it. And sometimes you have to go quicker to get it.”

“It doesn’t have to change too much,” said Bouchard, who is still over a month away from his 20th birthday. “There are places where you have to have more of a jump, but I don’t think it’s about changing it. It’s about adding it into my game.

“The one thing I did work on this summer is hustling back for pucks. That’s the main thing for me: Do you want to have the puck, or chase the puck? You want to have time with it once you get it, rather than coast back and (have to) make a quick play.”

Do you want to be first in fitness testing? Or on the first power-play unit?

Do it on the ice, kid. The captain said so.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.