EDMONTON — Evan Bouchard has the chance to go from understudy to star.
For the better part of two-plus seasons, the 23-year-old defenceman watched and learned as fellow defenceman Tyson Barrie ran the scariest power play in the NHL.
While it helps to have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl zinging pucks across the ice, 28 of Barrie’s 43 points this season have come on the man advantage.
But Barrie was part of a package that Oilers general manager Ken Holland sent to Nashville in exchange for shutdown defenceman Mattias Ekholm on Tuesday.
As a result, it has now fallen on Bouchard to run the power play’s first unit. And he hopes to put what he learned from Barrie to good use.
“He put guys in good spots, that’s what he was really good at,” Bouchard said. “He took the shots when they were available, and he made the right plays a lot of the time. That’s why I think the power play clicked a lot of the time with him.”
While it is a huge vote of confidence from the Oilers, Bouchard hadn’t exactly been lighting it up before the Barrie trade.
He had an eye-opening 43-point season in 2021-22, but has just 21 points this season. His booming slapshot has resulted in just three goals. But, at least for now, he has been promoted to the first unit of a power play that went into Wednesday night’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs clicking at a 31.9 per cent success rate.
Edmonton has led the league in power-play success rate in two of the previous three seasons. That one blip? Last season, when the Oilers finished third.
The power play began the post-Barrie era by going 1-for-4 against the Maple Leafs. But the numbers are deceiving.
The Oilers got an early man-advantage goal from McDavid, and then the second unit looked to have scored on the team’s second power play of the game, but the play was blown dead before the puck crossed the line because the officials had lost sight of the disc.
The final two power plays came late in the third period, when the Oilers were more concerned with managing a big lead than trying to score again.
Bouchard also had what looked to be a goal, waved off because of a penalty to McDavid before the shot beat Toronto goalie Ilya Samsonov.
All in all, a good showing.
Head coach Jay Woodcroft said Bouchard has to see this as a giant vote of confidence from not just him, but the entire Oilers’ front office.
When Bouchard impressed last season, he was paired with future Hall of Fame defenceman Duncan Keith. On Wednesday, Woodcroft made the decision to pair him with the 32-year-old Ekholm, who had just stepped off an airplane a few hours before puck drop.
“I think it’s important,” said Woodcroft. “We’re going to learn a lot about Bouchard down the stretch. I think the organization has put a lot of faith in him. I thought the way he played tonight, I thought that pairing was excellent.
“I think the power play, at an important juncture early, found a way to score a goal. I thought it scored another one, but it got called back. He had a fast break at the end of the second period on a goal that was called back. He should feel good about his game, he should feel good about the organization’s belief in his ability.”
Bouchard said his job is to simply pick up where Barrie left off.
“Try not to change it too much,” he said. “I mean, the power play is running with some incredible numbers. With the guys that we have on the power play, it’s going to make it a lot easier for me.”
However, he feels bittersweet about the change.
“He was awesome,” Bouchard said of Barrie. “He was definitely someone I looked up to playing similar roles.
“Watching him play the power play and all those kinds of things, it really puts things into perspective and something I will cherish.”
Ekholm was struck by how well he clicked with his new defensive partner.
“Really good, just his vision, talking a lot out there,” said the newest Oiler. “The biggest thing that stuck out to me is his vision and the way he saw the ice, found passes, was on the tape. I’ve seen him before, I know he’s a really good D-man.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2023.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press