Another key piece of the Edmonton Oilers’ 2023-24 puzzle fell into place on Thursday, as it was announced the club and young defenceman Evan Bouchard agreed to a two-year deal worth $3.9 million annually.
It’s a key piece of business out of the way for GM Ken Holland, the club getting Bouchard in at a number that, at least for now, seems a clear win as the young defender continues to grow into his potential.
The 23-year-old blue-liner has already established himself as a crucial piece for the Oilers. Drafted 10th overall by Edmonton back in 2018, the OHL standout initially broke out in 2021-22, putting up a 43-point effort while logging just under 20 minutes of ice per night after a couple of seasons further in the background. It was late last season, though, that Bouchard truly began to make clear his promise.
A late-February trade sent offensive defender Tyson Barrie to Nashville, with Mattias Ekholm coming back the other way to join the Oilers. Aside from landing the veteran rearguard, the deal also cleared the way for Bouchard to step into Barrie’s role as the quarterback of Edmonton’s all-world power play. The young defender flourished, potting 19 points over the final 21 games of the season following the change in role, and adding 17 more through Edmonton’s 12 game post-season stretch — that playoff sum was the highest on the team by anyone not named Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
For a young puck-mover who’s already shown what he can do at the top level — thrive on the rush, be the link between the Oilers’ lethal scorers in the offensive zone, and run the league’s best power play — $3.9 million per year is a steal for the club in the short-term. And the necessary route to take, as other hefty contracts on the books have given the team little cap flexibility — even with Bouchard coming in at something of a bargain sum next season, the Oilers still find themselves in need of some shuffling to make things work cap-wise.
That said, two years down the line, there’s every reason to think the Oilers will be in line for some pain. A significant step forward from Bouchard over the next two seasons — which seems attainable as he enters a season with the most opportunity he’ll have been given to this point, as the quarterback of the league’s most dominant power play — means a hefty extension post-bridge deal.
Complicating matters further, Leon Draisaitl’s contract will expire as Bouchard’s does, while Connor McDavid will be entering the final year of his own deal, setting Edmonton up for a wildly expensive summer.
Still, for the time being, Bouchard is back in the mix at what is surely a reasonable price. And Edmonton’s far from the only club that’s taken a similar approach with talented young blue-liners recently. Here’s a look at a few other contracts that align with Bouchard’s new deal:
Byram entered this off-season as a unique case. The 22-year-old has seen his young career already upended by significant injury issues, but has shown glimpses of brilliance on the ice, too — and contributed to a Stanley Cup run.
Averaging 21 minutes a night last season, and putting up 24 points through 42 games — a 47-point pace over a full campaign — the 2019 fourth-overall pick inked a similar bridge deal this past July, coming in at two years and $3.85 million annually.
Byram’s contract allowed the club to bring him back while accommodating the addition of Nathan MacKinnon’s hefty raise to their books, also beginning in 2023-24. Byram’s bridge deal will expire the same summer as Mikko Rantanen’s and Alexander Georgiev’s, setting the Avalanche up for a future spending spree of their own.
K’Andre Miller, New York Rangers (2 years x $3.87 million)
Drafted 12 spots after Bouchard in that same 2018 class, Miller has similarly established himself as a key presence on his club’s blue line and similarly found a new level this past season before inking his bridge deal.
The 23-year-old has averaged 20 minutes a night for each of the past three seasons — stepping that up to a career-high 21:57 in 2022-23, second-most on the team after Norris-calibre teammate Adam Fox — and collected a career-high 43 points this past season, too. He signed in July for two years at $3.872 million annually, an important number for a Rangers side that’s similarly right up against the cap.
While GM Chris Drury does have a number of his marquee talents inked long-term, Miller’s deal will expire at the same time as 2022 Vezina winner and Hart finalist Igor Shesterkin’s, and a year before captain Jacob Trouba’s, putting New York in a similar situation as the clubs above.
The lead-up to Vince Dunn’s own bridge deal wasn’t too similar to the Bouchard situation. Playing out his entry-level contract with St. Louis, who drafted him back in 2015, the young defender first signed a one-year deal with the Blues in 2020-21, worth $1.88 million after helping them win the Cup a couple of years prior.
The expansion draft then sent Dunn to Seattle, where he and his new franchise eventually landed on a two-year deal worth $4 million annually. Dunn, of course, wound up taking a massive step forward with the Kraken, emerging as one of the top young defenders in the game, putting up 99 points through the two years of that contract, and earning a few Norris votes along the way.
His performance over the course of that bridge deal earned Dunn a four-year extension this past July worth $7.35 million annually.
Islanders defender Noah Dobson, chosen two spots after Bouchard in the 2018 Draft, followed a path fairly similar to the Oilers rearguard. After a couple of seasons of steady improvement, and some impressive performances in the post-season, it was in the final season of his entry-level deal that Dobson truly showed his promise at the big-league level, logging 21 minutes of ice a night for the Isles and collecting a career-best 51 points — both tops among all Islanders defencemen.
With the club already locked into weighty long-term deals for Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat, along with fellow blue-liners Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech — and with Ilya Sorokin’s hefty extension kicking in a year from now — the Islanders opted for a similar route with Dobson. He earned one more season than Bouchard on his bridge, slotting in at three years and $4 million. In the first year of that contract, he once again established himself among his club’s offensive leaders, and like Bouchard, figures to cash in two years from now.