Training camps have begun league-wide and the pre-season is just around the corner. In Edmonton, Evan Bouchard is licking his chops looking out at the land of opportunity that is the right side of the Oilers defense. Bouchard received praise from all over the Oilers organization this week as training camps started up. Leon Draisaitl talked about him in his post-practice presser: “It’s like he belongs on the team.” Even coach Dave Tippett had this to say about the 2018 first round pick: “I think the key to our blueline this year is Evan Bouchard. I think he’s going to be a real good player for us. I think he’s going to continue to improve and he’s the X-Factor for our blueline..”
If I met Tippett in person, you can be sure I’d have quite a few questions about how he’s coached this team, especially in the playoffs. Needless to say, not all Oilers fans appreciate how he handles some of the lineup decisions. Question number one though will always be “why didn’t Bouchard get to play more in 2021?” Heading into the shortened 2021 season, it looked like Bouchard was going to be playing at least 3rd pairing minutes, but after signing powerplay specialist Tyson Barrie to a one-year contract, those plans were temporarily sidelined.
An injury on the right side to Ethan Bear a few weeks into the season is the only thing that got him into game action. After a pretty successful 12 game stint, 2 fateful goals against while he was on the ice was enough for Dave Tippett to sit him out nearly the entire rest of the season. 2 goals against he wasn’t at all worthy of taking blame for, mind you. He would get just 2 more games in 2021 after this, peppered throughout may in the garbage time of the season when the Oilers had essentially clinched. This is my main quarrel with Tippett- He likes to pick and choose who takes the blame for isolated events, despite the simple fact in hockey that one guy is never truly to blame for one play. Not to mention he tends to bias the blame away from more seasoned players, giving them the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully though, it seems like Bouchard may finally be getting the ice time he deserves.
With Bear now gone and the defense completely revamped, Bouchard has all the opportunity in the world. All he needs to do is perform and the top pair could easily be his. Many Oilers fans seem to be chalking the Ethan Bear trade up as some genius move by uncle Kenny this summer that will pave the way for Bouchard’s success in the NHL, even considering Bouchard as one of Hollands additions, but they’re forgetting one major factor- Evan Bouchard is a Peter Chiarelli draft pick, not a Holland draft pick. Regardless of what you have to say about the former Oilers general manager, this much is certain- he knows how to scout amateur talent very well. Many of the key prospects that Peter Chiarelli drafted from 2016-2018 that never played for his teams are now in their early 20’s and ready to make a difference on the Oilers roster of today. We’ve already seen Chiarelli draft some difference-makers in the later rounds with Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, both now sadly not on the team.
Long-term project Tyler Benson seems to be developing perfectly in the AHL. If it were up to me, he would’ve been on the team in 2019. He seems to be having a stellar training camp so far- Bob Stauffer tweeted out that he was “…terrific today in scrimmage.” Benson himself feels like it’s his time to shine, something you don’t usually see from the humbler minds in hockey.
It seems like for once in his Oilers tenure Benson may in fact become an NHL regular. There’s still a whole pre-season on the way and he has to beat out some solid competition in the bottom 6, but I truly believe this is his time, and he’ll be given every chance to prove it. Oilers fans ought to be real excited for him too- This is what you’ve wanted for so long, for NHL talent to rise up through the minors and prove itself in the NHL. Speaking of which, another third of that Bakersfield Condors super line last year of Benson, Ryan McLeod, and Cooper Marody seems to be guaranteed a spot on next year’s roster.
I was very impressed with how McLeod played last year, at one point centering the 2nd line in the playoffs. He really did fit like a glove into that bottom 6- he can drive play, finish chances, and play in his own end like nobody else in the Oilers bottom 6 can. Who will be his linemates though? Perhaps the Oilers upgrade the entire Benson McLeod and Marody line to the NHL, and that’s their 4th line? Certainly would be an experiment, and one it looks like they’re already trying out in practice.
It doesn’t matter too much to me, to be honest. I’m just excited McLeod has gotten to this point- It hasn’t fully set in yet that the Oilers have actually drafted a center outside of the first round and developed him into a full time NHL player, a good one at that.
The Oilers haven’t seen a minor team have this much success with home-grown players at the helm in decades. Last year saw many 2017, 2018 and 2019 draft picks step into the Condors and the Oilers and make an impact. Next year will be even more exciting- We’ll get to see top prospects Philip Broberg and Ilya Konovalov on north american ice for the first full year, Dylan Holloway will be back from his injury soon, and Dmitri Samorukov – another excellent Chiarelli draft pick – might even push for the big club.
Lately it’s become abundantly clear that you need good players on their first or second contract making under 1 million per year to have success. You just can’t win a cup without someone on their ELC in a moderately important role, those depth guys making league minimum are the key to success. Pittsburgh won back to back with Matt Murray and Jake Guentzel on their entry levels, Tampa’s entire 4th line was under 26 making nearly league minimum at one point in the 2021 playoffs. Here in Edmonton, the Oilers had their best season in a decade back in 2017 when McDavid and Drasaitl were on their ELC’s; what a crime that they couldn’t go further during their cheap years.
But for the first time in what feels like forever, the Oilers have a multitude of options should they wish for some cheap depth options during the year, and it’s inevitable that more arise as the season progresses. The majority of these, you’ll find, are going to be Peter Chiarelli draft picks- the man who was run out of town by virtually anybody who has ever watched an Oilers game, including yours truly. I don’t think it’s time to hop on the “well, actually, Chiarelli was right” train quite yet, but we’re definitely going to be seeing the positive effects from his tenure very soon.