Oilers’ Bouchard reflects on areas for improvement one day after benching

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Evan Bouchard. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

EDMONTON — The process, it can be brutal.

A young defenceman. A big mistake at a crucial moment. A coach who — you just know it — has seen that version of his player too many times before.

“It’s a mistake,” fessed up Evan Bouchard. “You know, it happened…”

Despite being outplayed, the Edmonton Oilers were locked in a 2-2 tie with the Washington Capitals on Monday night. There is 13:00 to play in the third period.

Watch the play unfold, and see how Bouchard (No. 2) allows Washington forward Aliaksai Protas (No. 59) to move freely up the middle and take a breakaway pass. Notice the forming danger, and when Bouchard takes notice of that danger:

Forget what happened at the end of the play, with Nic Dowd finally scoring. You can see Bouchard allow Protas space to move into position for the pass, then take that wide turn that left him unable to catch the Washington player.

The fact that Bouchard was lingering at the offensive blue line while a dangerous threat was forming points to his lack of defensive awareness on the play. It is a trait he is trying to shake, and one the coaching staff is growing impatient with.

The result was a breakaway late in a 2-2 game — the very mistake that costs you points in the standings.

Bouchard is a defenceman. This is the time — late in a close game — when you are supposed to defend.

“Gap control,” said Bouchard. “That’s the biggest thing that we’re working on for myself and as a team.”

It would be Bouchard’s last shift of the evening. Assistant coach Dave Manson — with the blessing of head coach Jay Woodcroft, we assume — sat Bouchard down for the remainder of the night.

“I think the coach was expecting a little more from me,” Bouchard, 23, said the next morning. “So you’ve got to kind of take that out of it. He expects more out of me and I expect more of myself.”

[brightcove videoID=6316645805112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Look, it’s not easy, walking out and facing the cameras to talk about the mistake that cost your team the game the night before. Nor was sitting on the bench for 25 minutes opening the door for your teammates, or the meeting Bouchard had with the Oilers coaching staff on Tuesday morning.

Forget social media for a couple of days — or ever, if Bouchard really wants to stay sane — for a young man with only 128 NHL games played. This is part of growing up under the NHL’s red-hot spotlight.

Think of it this way: When’s the last time someone made a GIF of a mistake YOU made at YOUR job?

“There are teachable moments, and growth moments, and that’s what you hope,” Woodcroft said Tuesday. “Especially for younger guys. So learn from those moments and get better as you move forward.”

Could it be Bouchard was confused as to what his assignment was on that play?

“We don’t leave much room for gray area,” said Woodcroft. “We’re very clear in what our messaging is, on a day in and day out basis. So no, I don’t think there’s a lack of understanding.”

So, in sitting Bouchard for the final 13 minutes of the game, what was the message?

“The message was that the critical error can’t happen. Not in a 2-2 hockey game.”

Bouchard is given the leeway to be creative, and to use the bomb of a shot that is perhaps his greatest gift. Let the record show, this play was neither.

It wasn’t Bouchard rushing a puck or having a shot blocked. This was just a moment that lacked focus, and you can bet one that Manson has seen too many times when he pours over the video every morning.

For the record: No one is saying it’s easy.

NHL players are unbelievably good. Never forget that, when criticizing someone for getting beat in an NHL game.

“That’s how guys get to this level,” Bouchard said. “There are top players that can make plays even with the defender on them, but then you also get those defenders who can stop those players. You want to be one of those defencemen.

“It’s a work in progress right now, but it’ll get it cleaned up.”

That’s the spirit, son.

Take your licks on Tuesday, then hop the boards on Wednesday and forget about it.

Well, most of it, anyhow.

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