EDMONTON — We like to think we’re prepared in life.
Mature enough and financially ready for kids. Equipped with the requisite experience to handle that new job.
But as my friend’s grandmother always said, “You plan, God laughs.”
Evan Bouchard was muddling through an up-and-down sophomore season with the Edmonton Oilers, quarterbacking a second power-play unit that barely got any minutes and, frankly, was not expected to produce. Then, he would awake Wednesday morning with an entirely new set of responsibilities.
With Tyson Barrie being traded to Nashville in the deal that sees Mattias Ekholm join the Oilers, the Oakville, Ont. native Bouchard finds himself running the best power play in the National Hockey League, and an absolutely integral element of any success these Oilers are going to have.
Oh, and kid? Your first game in the new role is on national TV against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s never exciting to see someone go, but it is a little bit of opportunity for me,” said Bouchard, a quiet 23-year-old who will play career NHL game No. 164 tonight. “Hopefully I can take it and run with it.”
Since Barrie’s arrival in Edmonton for the 2020-21 season, the Oilers power play has been the best in the NHL at 28.4 per cent — nearly four percent ahead of the second-place Maple Leafs. This season they’re operating at a 31.9 per cent clip, a full six points better than second-place Los Angeles.
Bouchard slips in behind the wheel of the Ferrari tonight and for the foreseeable future. It was a job that was always going to be his, just not this soon, or at this point in what has been an inconsistent season that is so typical in the life of a young NHL defenceman.
Standing at the intersection of preparation and opportunity, Bouchard knows if he can cover off the little things that Barrie was so good at, the time will come when he can put his stamp on this unit with one of the NHL’s better slapshots.
“(Barrie) put guys in good spots. I think that’s what he was really good at. He took the shots whenever they were available, (but) you know, he made the right play,” said Bouchard. He will “try not to change it too much. The power play is running with some incredible numbers with the guys that we have on the power play. It kind of makes it a lot easier for me.”
With Connor McDavid on one flank, Leon Draisaitl cocked and loaded on the other, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ subtle influence from the bumper and Zach Hyman or Evander Kane at net front, the guy up top’s primary job is to be in position to bail out a forward who is being checked, and simply start the unit going downhill with an accurate pass to the right player at the right time.
Every once in a while, when it becomes clear a few blasts from the point are needed to soften up a penalty-killing unit — like in Games 3 and 4 of the Conference Final last season — Bouchard’s shot is an upgrade.
“Our power play is huge. I’m sure Bouch will go in there and do a great job,” said Darnell Nurse, who is next in line if needed. “It’s a great power play (that’s been) snapping it around for a long time. That said, there are some pretty important special pieces down low that can make the guy up top feel good.
“(Bouchard) has got lots of experience doing it, and he’s a good player. I’m sure he can handle it.”
Remember, you’re always the last man back when standing at the top of a power-play unit constantly leaning towards the opposition’s goal. Barrie walked the blue line with a flare that reminded us (just a little bit) of Sergei Zubov, and he never had the happy hands — no matter how badly a puck was bouncing.
The good news, Bouchard has run this unit before.
“We’ve been unafraid … to change that element up, so it’s not just throwing somebody to the wolves,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “He got a chance to understudy underneath a pretty good power-play quarterback. He has a lot of ability. Now it’s his turn.
“He’s no longer the understudy.”