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Oilers defenceman Evan Bouchard helps power Edmonton’s playoff push

Kris Knoblauch thought he spied a weakness.

The head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters was looking for an edge against the rival London Knights during the 2015-16 season.

He noticed a rookie defenceman chewing up a lot of minutes on the junior circuit — and thought his team could pounce.

That player was current Edmonton Oilers blueliner Evan Bouchard. It didn’t take Knoblauch, who along with Bouchard has helped guide the NHL club to this year’s Western Conference final, long to realize at the time he’d made a big miscalculation.

“I was thinking, ‘All right, here’s this 16-year-old that’s getting a lot ice time — probably more than I think he deserves,’” Knoblauch recalled this week. “‘Tall, lanky, a little sleepy, maybe out of position a bit … let’s take advantage of it.’ But I was totally wrong.

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“He was growing into his body, but he was an outstanding player, even at that age. What I saw from him as a 16-year-old playing in the Ontario Hockey League … I’m kind of seeing here.”

That “here” is in the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs as a key Edmonton contributor.

Bouchard put up an outrageous 20 points through the post-season’s first two rounds — the most by a defenceman at that stage of the annual spring tournament in NHL history.

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Oilers in Dallas for Game 1. What do they need to focus on?

The 24-year-old and his booming shot scored in overtime against the Vancouver Canucks in Game 2 of the second round, bagged the winner in the dying seconds of Game 4, and chipped in two assists in the Oilers’ Game 7 triumph to finish that matchup with 11 points.

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Bouchard also registered four assists in Game 1 of the opening round against the Los Angeles Kings and had the only goal in a 1-0 victory in Game 3 before setting up three teammates in Game 5 to clinch that series.

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There was never any doubting the Oakville, Ont., product’s talent going forward. But the biggest development over the last 13 months — he had 18 goals and 82 points in 81 regular-season games in 2023-24 — has been an ability to better pick his spots offensively instead of leaving the fire hose on at all times.

“A big part of the step and growth that I’ve taken this year is the risk/reward factor, especially at this point in the season,” said the soft-spoken Bouchard. “The smallest mistakes usually end up in the back of your net or (become) momentum swings.

“Important for myself to really weigh that.”

Economical both on the ice and with the number of words he uses in the media, Bouchard said Hall of Fame defenceman and Oilers assistant Paul Coffey, who joined Knoblauch’s staff when he replaced Jay Woodcroft as head coach with Edmonton in an early 2-9-1 tailspin, has had a huge impact.

“How would you not be wide-eyed and listen to every word he says?” Knoblauch said of the four-time Stanley Cup champion. “Really allowed him to take that next step.”

Oilers captain Connor McDavid has been impressed by Bouchard’s breakthrough.

“Getting better and better,” said the superstar centre, who has Edmonton in the conference final for the second time in three years. “He thinks the game at such a high level.”

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Things started to really click for the six-foot-three, 192-pound Bouchard, who had 17 points across 12 games in the 2023 playoffs, last February after the Oilers acquired Mattias Ekholm from the Nashville Predators.

The veteran defenceman could tell right away his new blue-line partner had something special.

“He’s just been scratching the surface,” Ekholm said. “You could see from the first day I got here he has the offence. But at times, and early on this year, too, we hurt our team a little bit on the defensive end. We had to fine-tune that. We’re valuing situations and judging when to go and when not.”

Bouchard’s offensive instincts are there at the top of the stats sheet for everyone to see, but just like those early OHL days, there’s a lot more to his story.

“He’s always in the right position, he rarely makes a mistake,” Knoblauch said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for how well he defends.”

An underestimation similar to when the coach first experienced — and admittedly misread — Bouchard’s ability.

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