Evan Bouchard is expected to hear his name called early to the podium for the 2018 NHL entry draft.
The reason is as much for what’s between his ears as for what the London Knights blueliner does on the ice.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t the most skilled or talented, but I always had smarts for the game and knew where to put the puck most of the time,” started Bouchard. “I guess it comes naturally. You can’t really work on it too much when it comes to the game.
“It’s just really listening to what the coaching staff is saying — that helps a lot.”
Knights assistant coach Dylan Hunter knows Bouchard’s preternatural ability to see the game is something that not only attracted the team to him, but gave them the confidence to have him play important minutes in his rookie campaign two years ago.
Bouchard didn’t disappoint.
“When we saw him in minor midget he had that ability and he was almost playing like a video game — he knew where everybody was at any given time,” Hunter said. “That’s why we could play him like we did in his first year against Erie. He knew what his limitations were and he knew where everybody was, and you don’t get that very often.
“It’s like the Mitch Marners of the world — guys that can really understand the game two steps ahead.”
Maturity has helped.
Bouchard is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-shooting blueliner from Oakville, ON. who, as a late birthday (Oct. 20, 1999), is just entering his draft-eligible year.
He said he feels that fate of the calendar offers him a bit of an advantage this year.
“I think it helps,” admitted Bouchard, who is 18th in Future Considerations’ preliminary ranking for the 2018 draft. “It helps you mature a lot. From last year to this year, I think I’ve matured a lot over the summer. I worked on stuff that I needed to work on to get drafted as high as I can. It’s a bit of an advantage for me.”
As a freshman, Bouchard finished the 2015-16 season with two goals and 15 assists in 43 games, with a plus-15 rating. The then-16-year-old also acquitted himself nicely in the playoffs during his rookie campaign, with two assists in 10 games, as he played a role in the Knights’ eventual J. Ross Robertson Cup and Memorial Cup wins.
Bouchard improved across the board in his sophomore season last year, racking up 11 goals and 33 assists in 68 games, ending the year at plus-30. He also had a strong showing in 14 playoff games last year, with three goals and four assists before the Knights fell in Game 7 to the Erie Otters, ending their season.
This year, Bouchard is expecting to step up and play a leadership role on the back end — especially in the early season with fellow defenseman Victor Mete still at the Montreal Canadiens’ camp.
“It’s different because there are a lot of guys gone at NHL camps,” Bouchard said. “We had a good team last year, we expect to have a good team this year, but we’ve got a couple of guys out at NHL camps. I’m counted on to play a bigger role, obviously, in my third year, so I’m going to have to play more and carry more of the workload.
“With Vic gone — he’s one of the best, the top D in the league — if he comes back, you’ve really just got to try to take over his spot, try to do the best that I can while he’s gone, and hope that if he comes back that I can learn from him.”
The opportunity, Hunter suggested, will be there this year for Bouchard to take and run with.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“He’s going to have the reigns on the power play, he’s going to be on the first PK, and he’s going to get some of the minutes that Victor likely would have got. I think he’s ready for it; he has the ability for it. It’s something that he’s going to have to get comfortable with.
“But last year he was playing 24 minutes a game, so it’s not much of a change. I guess the only change is that now he’s more of an older guy, in his draft year still, but he’s an older guy.”
This being his draft year, Bouchard has had the luxury of having some elite — and heavily scouted — players as examples to learn from their experiences. He’s also proactively keeping the lines of communication open with teammates who are currently at camps.
This watching, questioning, and learning has helped him get prepared for his draft-eligible year.
“My first year we won the Memorial Cup,” Bouchard started. “I didn’t get to play every game, so I got to watch and really see how the players are — players like Marner and [Christian] Dvorak, even players like Mete who are still on the team — and seeing how hard they work in the game and all the little things they do to make themselves such good players.
“I’m talking guys even right now in NHL camps almost every day, seeing how they’re doing. Guys like Robert Thomas [drafted by St. Louis] and Alex Formenton [drafted by Ottawa], having gone through it last year, they’re going to help me a lot this year.”
The biggest take-away?
“Just don’t worry about who is in the stands,” he explained. “Just play your game, you’re here for a reason and just focus on that reason and play your game. Once the game starts and the puck drops you really forget about everything that’s on the outside, you’re just focused on the game and not really worried about who is watching.”
Still, Bouchard is poised to impress those watchers.
Coming into his draft year, he spent the summer trying to speed up and bulk up and improve his defensive prowess throughout the year.
“The game’s always getting faster, so I worked on my speed. And getting bigger — you work on trying not to get pushed off the puck, especially in the d-zone,” Bouchard said. “I really want to work on my defensive zone. Over the past couple years, it’s been getting better and I know this year that I’m going to have even more responsibility.
“Playing top minutes, playing against bigger guys — playing against the other team’s top guys hopefully, they’re going to be a lot better, so you’ve really got to work on the d-zone to get offense.”
Hunter added that Bouchard has been building a solid foundation of two-way skill — and he said that now is the time for Bouchard to truly define who he is as a player.
And when he’s called in 2018.
“I work closely with him everyday,” Hunter said. “He’s a reserved kid; he plays like it on the ice — a lot of patience,” Hunter said. “I really see that he’s coming into his own, making those demands on the puck, making sure that when he sees a hole he hits the hole. He’s very good system-wise, so that made him play early, but now he’s moving into a different level that’s going to be both offensively and defensively.
“He knows what he is, he’s got the foundation for it, and now you have to prove to yourself that you can do it consistently every day and that’s the kind of player you’re going to be.”