Weight: 191 pounds
Date of birth: October 20, 1999
Hometown: Oakville, Ontario
OHL Draft: Round 1, 17th overall, 2015 Priority Selection
It was September 26, 2015. I was at the London Knights season opener at the Budweiser Gardens in Downtown London when a kid wearing number 2 stepped onto the ice for his first shift. Something about that shift caught my attention. Maybe it was the poise he displayed? Maybe his skating? Maybe it was the smarts he presented? I’m not sure, but I knew I was going to follow this kid closely for the next couple of years.
I looked at the lineup for the night and discovered I was looking at Evan Bouchard, the Knights first round selection and seventeenth overall pick in that year’s Priority Draft. And he was just 15 years of age. What was most surprising about that is that he made the opening night roster of a Knights team that was deep on defence and would be challenging for the Memorial Cup that year – a cup they eventually ended up winning.
I immediately texted a friend who scouts NHL talent for a living and although the Ontario Hockey League was out of his area, he has a vast knowledge of the talent across North America. At that time, there wasn’t much of a scouting report he could share about Bouchard.
Bouchard played his Minor Midget hockey for the Oakville Blades where his offence was on full display during the 2014-2015 season in which he scored 18 goals and added 13 assists in 35 games. At the OHL Cup, Bouchard would add an assist in three games for the Blades. He was dominant at the OHL Gold Cup where he scored 5 goals and 6 assists in 5 games for Team OMHA White.
That first year in London, Bouchard notched 2 goals and 15 assists and finished with a plus-15 in 43 games for the Knights. Not bad for a fifteen turned sixteen-year-old defenceman playing for coach Dale Hunter, who often likes to bring a player along slowly.
He would represent Canada at the WHC Under-17 that first season and had a very good tournament, going 1-5-6 in three games. He won gold with Canada, was named to the All-Star team and would be the top point getter among defencemen.
It was during that season’s playoff run and Memorial Cup that you just knew the Knights’ coaching staff had faith and trust in Bouchard’s abilities. There a couple of occasions that Hunter would dress Bouchard as a right wing just to have him available on the powerplay. He had the confidence to use Bouchard on the top powerplay unit ahead of his two stud defencemen, Olli Juolevi and Victor Mete on several occasions. He wouldn’t dress in the finale, but the experience he gained cannot be quantified.
Last season, Bouchard played in all 68 games for the Knights and the statistical improvements went right across the board. He scored 11 goals and added 33 assists and finished with a plus-30. He would add 3 goals and 4 assists and a plus-4 in 14 playoff games. He would fire a hair under 2 shots-per-game, doubling that from the prior year – with the confidence instilled in him by his coaches.
This season, Bouchard is well on his way. He’s right there with Guelph Storms’ super d-man Ryan Merkley in points. Through 18 games, less than one-third of the season, Bouchard has 4 goals and 15 assists and on pace to exceed his career highs. And he’s already fired 66 shots on goal, a pace that puts him well above last season. The biggest reason for his shot increase is the powerplay. While he plays the point, you’ll often see him set up in the left face-off circle and his teammates setting him up for one-timers.
Bouchard also represented Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial but was pointless in 4 games. He also represented Team OHL in the CIBC Canada/Russia series, the last chance opportunity for players to make a case for themselves in game action for the World Junior Championships. It’s a very tough lineup to make as an 18-year-old defenceman but Bouchard held his own.
Bouchard is a very good skater with excellent mobility in all directions. He uses that mobility, and his high hockey smarts, to be effective and dangerous jumping up into the play. He can clear his zone with an excellent first pass, but if you’re not on top of him quickly and give him any amount of ice, he can skate the puck up ice quickly and efficiently. He can quarterback a powerplay and is an excellent passer – something that gets overlooked at times.
It’s difficult for a young defenceman to make perfect lead passes, one that catches your forwards skating quickly and putting the puck just out of the range of the opposition and allowing your teammate to skate into it. But Bouchard does it almost picture-perfect. That’s because he’s smart, reads plays quickly and reacts quickly.
He possesses an excellent shot and he gets it off quickly and shoots with a purpose. He’s not always trying to score, but put pucks in a place that you know a rebound will come.
There have been questions raised about his defensive game, and maybe rightfully so. He’s made vast improvements. He’s tough to beat one-on-one mainly because of his skating and hockey IQ. He will sometimes lose coverage in front of his own net. He has learned to be more careful in choosing when to stand in at the opposing blue-line and when to back off. The defensive game is coachable – and he’ll learn from experience and his hockey smarts. Maybe the horrid start by the Knights had something to do with it. And maybe now that the Knights are playing much better, they are starting to disappear from his game. He’s a winner, he wants to keep on winning and was probably trying to do it all himself early on.
There is no question that Merkley and Bouchard are the top two defencemen in this draft class from the OHL. Which one gets picked first in June? There is no question Merkley is the most dynamic, flashy offensive defenceman, but Bouchard is no slouch in the o-zone, he’s just less flashy. But for my liking, Bouchard wins in the all-around category.
I had the opportunity to talk to Knights’ General Manager Rob Simpson about the growth Bouchard has shown as a player. He spoke not only abut his growth in the OHL but the growth he has shown from minor midget. “I know there have been questions about his defensive game as you mentioned. He is so smart that he was anticipating what other players would do and it sometimes looks like he lost coverage. Sometimes he made the wrong choice, but he is so smart that he thinks ‘that didn’t work for me the last time, so I’ll try something different next time’.”
About clearing his own end, Simpson said “if you watch him when he’s being fore-checked, it looks like he’s waiting for the forecheck and he lets it come to him. He’s so smart, it’s easy for us to see from up top, but he sees it down there and that’s not easy. He almost always makes the right play.”
About Bouchard’s current role with the squad he added “he’s the only defenceman with two years experience on the team. He’s accepted that role and excelled in it, and why we are winning now.”
Eliteprospects.com stat page of Evan Bouchard