Evan Bouchard has shown well in Oilers camp thus far. Oilers fans have their reservations about having Bouchard on the roster full-time in his draft plus one season. Bouchard had the highest scoring season of any defenceman drafted in the last decade last year, but some scouts have questioned the defensive side of his game. His offensive skills have shone through in camp, and he hasn’t been all that bad defensively so far. The Oilers have had a penchant for rushing prospects in to the lineup in recent years, and we all know how well the team has performed in that time.
It’s common to see forwards jump straight from the draft into the NHL, but defencemen usually take more time to develop. I decided to do a bit of research into just how often defencemen drafted in the first round actually make their teams out of camp. In the last 10 years, 11 defencemen that were drafted in the first round went on to play more than 9 games in the NHL in their draft plus one season.
It really isn’t unprecedented.
Here is a list of those 11 defencemen and how they fared in their rookie seasons:
Drew Doughty: 27 pts in 81 GP, -17.
Zach Bogosian: 19 pts in 47 GP, +11.
Bogosian did also play 5 games in the AHL later in the season.
Victor Hedman: 20 pts in 74 GP, -3.
Dmitri Kulikov: 16 pts in 68 GP, -5.
Cam Fowler: 40 pts in 76 GP, -25.
Adam Larsson: 18 pts in 65 GP, -7.
Larsson had a bit of an up and down start to his career. He started the next season in the AHL, where he played 33 games before being called up to the Devils. He also had a stint in the AHL in his 3rd pro season.
Seth Jones: 25 pts in 77 GP, -23.
Rasmus Ristolainen: 4 pts in 34 GP, -15.
Ristolainen was sent down to the AHL after his 34 GP, where he put up 20 points in 34 games played with a more respectable -2 rating.
Aaron Ekblad: 39 pts in 81 GP, +12.
Noah Hanifin: 22 pts in 79 GP, -14.
Jacob Chychrun: 20 pts in 68 GP, -14.
If we use these stats as a range for Bouchard’s potential performance this season, the worst-case scenario would see him flop like Ristolainen did in his rookie year. That would be similar to what happened with Leon Draisaitl and Jesse Puljujarvi. Each of them played 30 some-odd games before being sent down. Those would be examples of players that weren’t ready to play at the NHL level yet. If we use playing AHL games after playing more than 9 NHL games as an indicator of readiness, then Ristolainen and Bogosian are the two defencemen on this list weren’t NHL ready in year 1. Larsson saw AHL games in his 2nd year, which would also suggest that he wasn’t ready in year 1. That makes 3 out of 11 (27.2%) that were thrown into the NHL a little bit too soon. The odds are pretty good that Bouchard wouldn’t fall into that category, but that is not a guarantee.
The best-case scenario would see Bouchard scoring at about a half of a point per game pace, similar to what Fowler and Ekblad did. 2 of the 11 defencemen on the list (18%) were able to score more than 0.48 points per game. The Oilers would be a much different team if Bouchard could score 40 points. If Bouchard scores 40 points, he will have established himself as the point man on the top powerplay unit. It could happen, but it seems unlikely based on the strategy that new assistant coach and main powerplay strategist Manny Viveiros is utilizing so far. The top unit of McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Lucic, and Klefbom are all left-handed. Bouchard is right-handed. The second unit appears to be an all right-handed group, so there could be a spot for Bouchard on that unit.
The average points per game production of the 11 players on the list is 0.32, which translates to 26.4 points over an 82-game schedule. If Bouchard gets 82 games, I would anticipate his total being a little bit above the average due to his elite passing and decision-making abilities. That sort of production would likely put him 2nd or 3rd on the team in terms of offensive production from the back end behind Klefbom and potentially Nurse. Nurse led the defence with 26 points last year. Given how much of a struggle scoring from defencemen was last season, Bouchard could really give the Oilers a boost in an area of need.
However, the concern with Bouchard is on the defensive side of the puck. Ekblad and Bogosian were the only two players on the list to be plus players. If we alter our definition of success in +/- to be at -10 or higher, then you could add Larsson, Kulikov, and Hedman to the list. With that definition of success, 5 of 11 (45%) were successful in their rookie years. I don’t view Bouchard as being an elite defender right now, so I highly doubt that he would be a plus player. Interestingly enough, Fowler had the most points and the worst +/- in the group. I would argue that Bouchard has a better chance of having numbers similar to Fowler’s than being a plus player or anything close to it. I would put my money on Bouchard’s +/- being -10 or worse over an 82-game season this year. +/- is a deceiving stat since a player can get a – and not have made a mistake, so take this analysis of +/- with a grain of salt.
Drew Doughty’s 27 points in 81 games with a -17 rating would be a reasonable expectation for Bouchard if he were to get a full season with the Oilers this year. I don’t think there would be anything wrong with that if Bouchard were to be on the third pairing with some powerplay time on the second unit.
The other interesting thing to note with this list of defencemen is that 7 out of the 11 (64%) have birthdays that are later than September 15th. That is significant because in order to be eligible for the NHL draft, a player must have turned 18 years of age prior to September 15th of the previous year. Players born after September 15th get an extra year of development at a lower level before being drafted. As a result, players with late birthdays are typically more prepared to play in the NHL sooner than players with early birthdays. Bouchard’s birthday is on October 20th. He already has 3 years of OHL hockey under his belt, and he was dominant in that league last year. That makes him more NHL ready than some of his peers automatically.
In deciding whether or not Bouchard will be on the Oilers past his likely 9-game audition, McLellan will need to factor in the potential success of the team and what will be best for the development of the player. If Bouchard does not play in Edmonton this year, then he will go back to London, where he will play close to 30 minutes per night and put up ridiculous numbers. I personally think that players are better off developing at a lower level if they can, but there’s a reason that I’m blogging and not coaching in the NHL. I don’t know what will be best for Bouchard’s development, but I can tell you how many times the 11 defencemen that made the jump to the NHL right away in the last 10 years have made the playoffs in their rookie seasons:
This is a big season for the Oilers as an organization. There is a lot of pressure from the fan base and ownership to make the playoffs this year. Making a move that has had a 0% success rate for making playoffs may not be the wisest decision, but they need to put the best team on the ice that they possibly can. If Bouchard gives the Oilers the best chance to win every night, then he should be on the team.
The margin between winning and losing in the NHL is quite small. I play fantasy sports, and I find that you need to take some risks on guys with high ceilings and low floors in order to win because everyone is so good now. The same logic can be applied here. Bouchard is the defenceman that has the highest ceiling for points out of the group of four that are battling for the last couple of spots in the defence group. If he scores 40 points, then the Oilers would likely be a playoff team. Ethan Bear is in a similar situation, and the same logic applies for him (although I think Bouchard’s ceiling is higher this year). Jerabek and Garrison offer more experience. The floor might be higher for them than it would be with Bouchard, but the ceiling is limited with the veterans.
Jerabek and Garrison seemingly haven’t separated themselves from the youngsters Bouchard and Bear. It’s basically a coin flip at this point. Putting Bouchard on the team full-time this year would be a bold move. Fortune favours the bold. We’ll see how bold McLellan and Chiarelli want to be with Bouchard in the coming days and weeks.