Bouchard’s impressive development gives big boost to Oilers

Gene Principe and Elliotte Friedman discuss Roope Hintz's timeline, potentially returning as early as Saturday for Game 2, who Kris Knoblauch would remove from the Oilers' lineup for Adam Henrique, and why the Stars aren't sweating a Game 1 loss.


With one minute to play in Game 7 at Vancouver, the noise level at Rogers Arena was freight-train loud. The Vancouver Canucks were doing what they do, coming back like the scary guy in a horror movie, and the Edmonton Oilers were in full defend mode, crawling to the finish line.

Paul Coffey stood behind Evan Bouchard on the Edmonton bench. There was one shift to play, 50 more seconds left to defend, before the Oilers could get out of this second-round series that was, at this point, a far bigger bear than anyone had imagined.

If you saw the video of Kris Knoblauch’s timeout address moment earlier, you’ll know that there was no whispering words of encouragement at a moment like this. Coffey had to yell to be heard, and he had to make sure that Bouchard was ready to be counted on.

“I looked at him on the bench,” Coffey said on Friday, “and I said, ‘ARE YOU (blank)ING READY?’

“He said, ‘I’ve got this.’”

Bouchard would play the final 50 seconds of that game, defending a 3-2 lead with a series – and a season – on the line.


This is a story about No. 1 defencemen and a franchise that has developed exactly two of them in its 45 National Hockey League seasons.

Today, the first one, assistant coach Paul Coffey, counsels the next one, 24-year-old Evan Bouchard, to the point where the latter may start breaking the former’s records, with an NHL record 20 points by a defenceman in the first two rounds of these playoffs.

“My first conversation with him,” began Coffey, now in charge of Edmonton’s defence, “on that first (November) road trip into Tampa and Florida, was, “Bouch, you play a risk/reward game. If the risk outweighs the reward, we’re going have trouble here.’

“I’m still going to play you, but I just need you to figure that part out. And I’m here to help you.”

It is perhaps most exposing role in our sport, the last man back who has the courage to make plays and create offence. They used to call Latvian chance-taker Sandis Ozolinsh an “offenceman” back in the day, but you can’t win with that level of risk in your leader on the blue-line.

Today, in a game that has never been conducted at a faster pace, a true No. 1 must make the smart, quick and accurate retrieval plays in his own zone so that the offensive zone time can exist for his team.

“That’s a big part of the growth I’ve taken this year, the risk/reward factor,” Bouchard admits. “Especially at this point in the season. Where the smallest mistakes end up back in your net, or with a momentum swing.

“Having a coach like Paul definitely helps. He wants you to make plays, which is great for myself and everyone else. And having (Mattias) Ekholm as a partner, he’s smart with the puck, strong defensively, strong offensively, can make a first pass…. He kind of does it all.”

[brightcove videoID=6353607496112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Affixed with a coach who has won four Stanley Cups and three Norris Trophies, and a partner who is perhaps the perfect No, 2 — the Brent Seabrook to Bouchard’s Duncan Keith; as Charlie Huddy was to Coffey — Bouchard’s development has been handled wisely by Oilers GM Ken Holland and CEO of hockey operations Jeff Jackson.

At this point in his development, Coffey seems the perfect influence: a lethal mix of winning attitude and old-school swagger.

“If your coach doesn’t have confidence in you, it doesn’t matter,” Coffey said. “You can have all the confidence in the world, but if you’re worried about making mistakes —  about him sitting your ass on the bench when a mistake happens — it doesn’t matter if you’re Evan Bouchard or Cody Ceci, it won’t work.”

If there was a series MVP for Round 2, Bouchard would have earned him that accolade against Vancouver. He had two game-winning goals and 11 points (eight even strength) in seven games, and averaged 25:55 of ice time per night while dominating his matchup against Canucks No. 1 Quinn Hughes.

But in Game 5, Bouchard fumbled a puck behind his net that Phil Di Giuseppe scored on, a free goal that set the Canucks on their way to another come from behind win. It was a reminder of the knock on Bouchard, the casual play, the lack of urgency that is slowly disappearing from his game.

“When you have the puck on your stick as much as he does, Game 5 is going to happen. But I don’t need to tell him what he did. He knows,” Coffey said. “I don’t need to tell (Brett Kulak in Game 1 at Dallas) what he did (on a giveaway leading to a Stars goal). He knows what he did. The best thing you can do as a coach — and the thing you want as a player — is to get right back out there.

“Those conversations on the bench? They never happen. I don’t need to tell Bouch there, ‘What the hell are you doin’?’

He mimics Bouchard’s response: “What the hell do you think I’m doing? I (bleeped) up!’”

“These guys, they know what they’re doing.”


As Coffey and Bouchard make some headway on injecting some urgency into his defensive game — “He’s thoughtful with the puck back there, but I trust him,” Coffey said — the offensive end of his game is set to become even more elite.

Not since Sergei Zubov have we seen a defenceman whose head is up like Bouchard’s, who can play period after period seemingly without ever looking down at his blade. That awareness allows for plays like the one in double OT on Thursday where, rather than simply punch a loose puck back into the corner, Bouchard pinched, grabbed a puck at the far-right hashmark, and laid the perfect pass on Connor McDavid’s tape for the game-winner.

He had 82 points this season, one of just 11 80-point campaigns by a defenceman this century. He’s playing just shy of 25 minutes per game in these playoffs, and consistently has the hardest shot in the entire league — with more than twice as many 90-m.p.h. blasts than the next guy.

[brightcove videoID=6353604260112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

So what if he’s never going to be Rod Langway defensively. Is that fair?

“I’ll tell you what’s fair,” said Coffey. “Rod Langway is never going to be Evan Bouchard offensively.

“We don’t need Bouch to be a defensive juggernaut. That’s not his gig. Because if he’s that, he’s not going to be as good with the puck. You want Bouch to be back there, dumping it around the boards?”

Meanwhile, Bouchard’s shot — affectionately known as The Bouch Bomb — is a mixture of Sheldon Souray’s velocity and Jari Kurri’s accuracy. Asked what side of that equation he prefers, Coffey settles on the latter, noting that getting a shot through from the point that lands consistently within a few inches of a post or cross bar is even more valuable than a 95-m.p.h bomber.

We asked Stuart Skinner, the Oilers goalie, for his thoughts:

“He somehow finds a way to get it through everybody,” Skinner said. “But even on clean looks, he just goes post in or bar down. You always hear a ‘Ting!’ when he shoots it, and when he scores.”

As for Bouchard, a big (six-foot-three, 192 pounds), right-handed-shooting product of Oakville, Ont. and the London Knights program, he won’t help you much with a story on how good he is becoming.

There is still some “Aw, shucks” in this kid still, and a willingness to let others do the talking — off the ice.

“Come playoff time, you’ve got to step up,” is all he said. “The team (has) played very well, and from team success you get individual success after that.”

A true No. 1 defenceman, developed out of the guy you drafted 10th overall in 2018?

That, my friend, is team success.

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.