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Photo Credit: NHL.com

Should the Canucks Be Worried About Evan Bouchard’s Skating?

Evan Bouchard has one of the most impressive statistical profiles of any 2018 draft-eligible defencemen not named Rasmus Dahlin.

Bouchard outpaced all OHL defencemen — regardless of age — when it came to points(87), assists(62), shots(297), and primary points per game(0.9). Narrow down the criteria to sort by U19 defencemen historically and Bouchard’s production looks all the more impressive.

Ryan Ellis is the only defenceman since Bouchard’s birth to score more than 87 points in the OHL as an 18-year-old. It’s impressive company for Bouchard to be a part of when you consider some of the names in that cohort — a group that includes Drew Doughty, Dougie Hamilton and John Carlson in addition to Ellis.

But it’s been another defenceman in University of Michigan defenceman Quinn Hughes who’s separated himself from the pack as the premier option among second-tier blueliners in the upcoming draft. Coincidentally, it’s Hughes’ biggest strength in his sublime skating ability that also happens to be the Achille’s heel of Bouchard’s game.

Or so we’re told.

Industry opinion remains divided on Bouchard’s skating and the extent of its possible hindrance at the NHL level. A deeper analysis of game footage can shed light on the strengths and weaknesses in the way Bouchard gets around the ice.

Poor Acceleration, Good Top End Speed

For all that’s been made about Bouchard’s gaudy statistical production, not nearly enough questions are being asked about how he accrued those points. At even-strength, he was able to create offence by playing an active role in transition — both when it came to carrying the puck through the neutral zone or joining the rush as the second or third option.

Watching Bouchard play, it’s fair to question whether he can contribute in that same capacity at the NHL level.

What sticks out to me in this clip is the lack of explosiveness in Bouchard’s first few strides. He picks up speed once he crosses the top of the circle, but he’s unable to create initial separation from the Petes forechecker.

Bouchard is cognisant of his poor acceleration and often carries the puck into safer lanes, though this introduced problems of its own.

The primary issue in this play isn’t the turnover, but rather the position Bouchard has to put himself in because of his limited two-step quickness.

As Bouchard collects the puck behind the net, he’s mindful of 67’s forward Kody Clark shifting across the ice to provide support for his backchecking teammate. Bouchard knows that he can’t outpace Clark through the middle of the ice, so he’s forced to the outside lane. With the boards on his left and the 67’s pressuring him from the other side, the Knights defenceman runs out of real estate and is goaded into forcing a pass that results in a turnover.

Sure, the dispossession could have been prevented by chipping the puck out off the boards, but Bouchard isn’t put into that situation in the first place if he’s quicker with his first two steps. It’s a problem that will only be magnified in a league that features tenacious and speedy forechecking teams.

For all of the faults in Bouchard’s explosiveness, he’s able to use long and powerful strides that allow him to pick up steam when given time and space.

Bouchard flashes good top-end speed for a player of his size, but he’ll struggle to find the room to move his legs with the puck at the NHL level.

The first clip in that video is a perfect example of that.

Here, Bouchard is able to exit the defensive zone cleanly because of the painfully slow skating of 6-foot-8 forward Curtis Douglas at the half-wall. Almost any other forward would have been able to move a step quicker to close the space and force Bouchard into an outlet pass to Knights’ forward Tyler Rollo.

This hypothetical wouldn’t have stopped the counter-attack, though it would have taken Bouchard out of the odd man rush.

Slow Turns and Soft Edge Work

As you move onto Bouchard’s skating away from the puck, the issues become increasingly glaring.

This clip highlights multiple deficiencies in Bouchard’s skating. He doesn’t do himself any favours right off the bat by slowing his feet when the Firebirds’ forward takes the outside lane. Bouchard then compounds the issue with a dreadfully slow turn that gives the forward the separation he needs to drive to the net uncontested.

Most concerning about this play is that the Firebirds’ forward isn’t skating into the zone at a particularly quick pace in the first place. It’s frightening to imagine the same sort of sequence in the pro ranks against a player with decent wheels.

Bouchard’s overall ability to defend the rush was routinely exploited at the OHL level, with The Athletic’s Mitch Brown’s microdata showing the Oakville, Ontario native to be decisively inferior relative to other junior defencemen.

Watching the Knights play does introduce a contextual factor that no doubt skews the data to an extent. London often employed a passive neutral zone trap with two or three forwards plugging the neutral zone while the team’s defenders sat back in the defensive zone.

Having said that, plays like the above also highlight Bouchard’s tendency to remain passive on the puck carrier when there was a breakdown in the system. In this situation, Bouchard should have been proactive and begun closing the gap on the attacker at around the red line, when he realized that his teammate would be late in cutting off the left wing lane.

Also lacking in this play is the proper lateral movement to keep the puck carrier in front of him. Bouchard doesn’t have an explosive east-west stride while skating backwards and has to default to turning around and chasing the play in the clip. The overall outcome is passable since he does an acceptable job of keeping the attacker to the outside, but he could have done much better by playing a tighter gap and staying in front of the forward’s path for as long as possible. Unfortunately, Bouchard’s substandard acceleration and edge work limit his effectiveness in both those suggested areas of improvement.

It especially hurts him when it comes to holding a tight gap in the neutral zone.

In this situation, Bouchard doesn’t even try to take time and space away from Otter’s forward Kyle Maksimovich. As a result, Maksimovich has oodles of time to survey the developing play and thread a pass across the ice for a high danger scoring chance. You’d like Bouchard to play a more aggressive gap to take that time away, but he can’t run the risk of playing the wrong angle and getting burned for speed.

Where Bouchard’s lack of deftness really gets exposed is in tight spaces.

In this clip, Bouchard fakes the dump-in to try and create a moment’s hesitation to allow him the time to turn and hang on to the puck. It’s a smart idea, but Bouchard’s execution is abysmal as he glides into the turn as opposed to making a sharp pivot to steer the puck into space. He’s checked by the Spitfire’s forward and loses the puck.

Flat Feet In the Defensive Zone

The biggest issue with Bouchard’s skating isn’t a mechanical fault, but rather his tendency to drift around the ice flat-footed. The effect of this was felt in no greater magnitude than in the defensive zone, where his stagnant feet led to lackadaisical coverage.

Bouchard’s reluctance to move his feet with purpose costs him when it comes to later taking time and space away from the opposition. Casual effort away from the puck appears to be the root cause of these coverage lapses, and while it’s certainly a problem, it’s not the only debilitating factor at play.

In all of these clips, Bouchard doesn’t bother trying to take space away because he knows he doesn’t have the edgework or explosiveness in his first stride to recover in time. He needs to compensate for this by being more proactive and mobile with his feet, but instead, he remains stagnant for far too long. Look no further than the first clip from that video for a perfect example.

Colts’ forward Andrei Svechnikov almost reached the trapezoid marking by the time Bouchard decided to stop drifting away from the net. For Bouchard to have blocked the lane to the net, he needed to get his feet moving and pivot back as soon as Svechnikov made the move to pull the puck to his forehand.

Decent Backwards Skating

While some of the previous clips exposed Bouchard’s flawed turns and edgework, he actually does a good job of defending the rush when he’s able to keep the attacker in front of him. This is because he’s a good skater going backwards in a straight line — it only falls apart when the opposing forward has space and forces Bouchard to turn around.

The key in the clips above is the tight gap that Bouchard is able to play. As mentioned earlier though, he can only afford to hold it when he’s absolutely certain he has all space and angles cut off. If Bouchard is even half a step late in taking space away or if he leaves an open angle, he knows he doesn’t have the skating ability to make an adjustment and recover.

Conclusion

While Evan Bouchard has decent speed going both forwards and backward, he struggles with his turns, edges and acceleration. Unfortunately, the flaws in his skating were magnified on a regular basis due to his propensity to float around and remain flat-footed.

This will undoubtedly hamper Bouchard’s effectiveness in some facets of the game once he graduates into the pro ranks. For starters, he won’t be as effective as a puck rushing defenceman compared to junior due to his inability to create separation with his first few strides.

Without the puck, expect Bouchard to improve his coverage and gap in the own zone as he learns to become more proactive with his feet. Neither area looks to be a strength for Bouchard moving forward, but I certainly expect him to show better in both those regards than he did in junior.

Neutral zone defence, on the other hand, will likely remain a mixed bag at the NHL level. Bouchard performs adequately when he holds a tight gap and keeps the puck carrier in front of him, but both will be difficult to manage against the quicker forwards in the league. Unless there’s drastic development in the pace of Bouchard’s turns and the explosiveness of his edgework, he’ll have his fair share of problems defending against speed on the rush.

All in all, there’s definitely cause for concern with Bouchard’s skating and how it might affect the translation of his skills against bigger and faster competition. Bouchard remains a fantastic prospect given his consummate offensive toolkit, but whether he makes sense for the Canucks as their top choice at seventh overall is an entirely different debate.

  • truthseeker

    Very interesting article. This is the first thing I’ve seen that’s caused me to rethink my position on him as this is something that finally presents more than just hearsay.

    Having said that, this only pushes me more into the Dobson camp than making me thing Hughes would be a better option. The problem I have with players like Hughes who are so highly touted for their “potential” is that when I look at his point totals since he was young I don’t see evidence of a kid who’s dominated at any level. Some good seasons yes…but nothing that jumps off the page. If the canucks are going to gamble on a kid with a ton of “potential” I’d like to see a point where he was clearly far and away blowing his competition out of the water.

    Bouchard’s season was exactly that. Head shaking numbers in a league that is supposed to be better quality than the NCAA.

    Again though…I’ll fall back on the hope that the canucks simply take the best D man that’s available to them at their pick, whether that be Bouchard, Dobson, or Hughes. I really just don’t want a forward. Any of them. Even the Russian kid. Just not enough value on wingers.

    • Harman Dayal

      The NCAA is actually a tougher league to score points in than the OHL. Bouchard would have been playing against 16-19 year-olds with the odd overager at 20. Hughes, on the other hand, was one of the youngest players in a league of older college-aged players.

      I’d argue that Hughes’ production was just as impressive as Bouchard’s. He had a higher P/GP rate than Brady Tkachuk, outscored last year’s 4th overall pick Cale Makar by 8 points and had more points in the NCAA than Zach Werenski did in his draft-1 season.

      • truthseeker

        Fair point. But couldn’t it be argued that even though there are older players in the NCAA their skill level overall is weaker than the CHL? Let’s face it….the CHL is still the premier source of talent for the NHL.

        Good points regarding his relative point production compared though. I really do hope the canucks stay as far away from Tkachuk as possible if he should somehow fall to them.

        I suppose I just see a kid like Bouchard and even if we give equal weight to your argument about competition and point totals being roughly equivalent between the two, then I would say, if it’s sort of an “even” choice between two guys, then the size would be my deciding factor.

        I’ll admit…it’s going to be a difficult choice for these GM’s and I get the arguments both ways.

        • Harman Dayal

          You’re not wrong with your thinking that the skill level of the NCAA is weaker than the CHL. Having said that, NCAA players are a lot more physically mature — meaning they’re bigger, faster and stronger.

          Aside from offence, I’d actually argue that Hughes is a better defender than Bouchard. Hughes might not have the size to excel down low, but his anticipation, edgework and active stick are all huge assets in the defensive zone. He does a great job of taking time and space away all over the ice. He was also quite a bit stronger on his feet and in puck battles than I thought he would be in the World Championships. Hughes isn’t just good defensively for his size, I’d argue he’s an above-average defender period. The University of Michigan coaching staff certainly believed this too, because they sent out Hughes to defend their lead against Gaudette’s Northeastern team in the last minute of an elimination game.

          I’m not sure if you watched the Canada vs US game near the start of the World’s, but that was a great showcase of Hughes’ two-way acumen.

          It’s all likely to be a moot argument though, because I doubt Hughes will fall to 7

    • Dirk22

      I feel like we had this discussion before. You seem to think CHL > NCAA. CHL has 16-20 year old whereas NCAA has an average age of 22. For the most part, the better players mostly exist in the CHL but the age difference makes it tough for younger guys like Hughes to put up eye popping “Bouchard” like numbers.

      Long story short, Hughes’ 29 points in 37 NCAA as an 18 year old games is WAY more impressive than 29 points in 37 CHL games as an 18 year old. It was similar to Werenski’s performance as one of the best 18 year old seasons by a dman in NCAA history.

      It’s rare for a draft-eligible player to put up huge numbers in the NCAA (unless you’re Eichel who was talked about in the same vain as McDavid).

      • truthseeker

        I don’t seem to think. I do think. Check the historical draft records. Not many NCAA players are chosen in the first round of NHL drafts compared to the CHL. Yes it’s slowly changing but I feel it’s reasonable to still be skeptical of the skill level coming out of the NCAA.

        And I’m not comparing him to someone who got 29 points in 37 games in the CHL. I’m comparing him to a guy who got 87 points in 67 games and dominated his league from the back end.

        And that’s right. If it’s rare for guys to put up huge numbers then I think that’s a sign they should be looked at with caution. This is all lower level hockey. Top 10 picks should have decent separation from their competition when 98% of these guys are never going to play pro.

        • Dirk22

          “Not many NCAA players are chosen in the first round of NHL drafts compared to the CHL.”

          There’s a good reason for that. The overwhelming majority of them drafted are still in ‘high school’ or Grade 12 age at least.

          • truthseeker

            there are still not a lot of those players drafted in comparison either Dirk. Stop being ridiculous. Go count the USHL draftees and compare them to the CHL. Not even close.

          • Dirk22

            What exactly is ridiculous about what I am saying? I clearly said CHL has better players but it’s the age gap that makes NCAA the tougher league. It’s a 3-4 year difference on average. Literally men vs. boys. You’re here arguing that there’s not many NCAA players chosen in the draft and I’m being ridiculous!

            But since you’re calling me out on being ridiculous I did a little research on the 2017 draft. There are 17 USHL teams. Last year there were 40 USHL players drafted and 8 USHL alumni. There are 60 CHL teams. Last year there 89 players chosen from CHL teams. Let’s look at the first round. 14 CHL players chosen from 60 teams. 7 players chosen from 17 teams. I’ll let you do all the math but you’ll clearly see the USHL players had a better chance of being drafted than the CHL players ……and it’s not even close.

      • Holmes

        when team canada juniors play exhibition games at mastercard, they play against the University of Toronto….and they are even games. No chance CHL is better than NCAA

  • Peachy

    Very good analysis. All of this begs questions… To what extent are the deficiencies in his skating the result of:

    1 – (relatively) poor athleticism, which (largely) cannot be fixed? (This can be measured via combine jumping results; his strong pull up results are mostly irrelevant.)

    2 – poor technique, which can be fixed? (I’m sure teams are using skating coaches to do due diligence on this.)

    3 – poor on-ice work ethic, which might be fixable? (Interviews may reveal this.)

    While Bo Horvat dramatically improved his skating, his issues were almost entirely technique. He had the athleticism and technique. Most don’t, and if Evan doesn’t, I’m not convinced he’ll be anything more than a highly sheltered PP specialist.

    • Rodeobill

      Good points. One thing, though, was they found the problem with Horvat’s skating was mostly mental, keeping his feet moving at certain times, and digging in as opposed to issues in his form. This is the big question and gamble here… are Bouchard’s issues fixable like that, is he willing to address them, and how much will he improve thereafter.

      After reading this, I now think he is perhaps the real boom or bust of the top ten, all contingent upon this very issue.

  • apr

    Really interesting article, that is very well presented. The highlight to support your analysis are very convincing. Moreover, I appreciate that you put a lot on emphasis on defensive acumen. While the trend is smaller and quicker defenseman, I think the analysis on defensive capabilities has somehow been less of a priority in draft analysis. I think we can all agree that Jordan Subban sucks, and Ashton Sautner may actually be a solid NHL d-man. My only question on the analysis is what are the impacts of Hunter playing Bouchard 30 minutes a game. Surely Bouchard cannot be aggressive and take the more difficult route in each play, otherwise he would be spent in the first period. Perhaps that extra step and better edgework will be more available if he’s playing 18-20 minutes instead. Hard to tell. Really enjoyed the analysis.

    • Harman Dayal

      I agree that Bouchard’s deployment would have affected the way he paced himself through games. I took that into account when suggesting that he’ll likely improve at moving his feet in the defensive zone.

      • Tedchinook

        I think in the defensive end the issue is almost entirely getting caught flatfooted rather than any skating deficiency. As long as a defender is active and has his feet moving you almost never see them beat to the outside. He has to focus on it, but it’s definitely correctable.

  • There have been lots of examples in recent years of high-end players who had skating issues coming out of junior who worked on their skating and have succeeded at the NHL level – John Tavares and Bo Horvat are two who immediately spring to mind.

    It’s a lot easier to improve your edge work than it is to teach “thinking the game” at a high level.

    • speering major

      There are definitely players that can improve their skating. Even the Sedins made a notable improvement one summer. The problem is it’s rare. Also Horvat aside, it’s improving below average skaters to average.

      I haven’t seen the kid play enough to make any judgement but with the direction the game is heading and how rare it is to fix someones speed issues at the pro level, I would probably look elsewhere at 7th overall

  • I guess we should only be worried if we end up drafting Bouchard. But as Wahlstrom and Kotkaniemi creep up the standings, the more defensive options we have at #7.

    But getting back to Bouchard, if his skating is a deficiency, then that offsets any skill he brings as a PP QB. The Canucks historically falter when facing an aggressive PK so if Bouchard gets caught by a defender, we could see a lot of shorthanded breakaways against.

    The concerns about his skating in combination with concerns about his defensive reads make me rate Dobson higher then Bouchard. I’m looking at the rankings now as: Hughes, Boqvist, Dobson, Bouchard.

    • argoleas

      For the life of me, I cannot see either Benning or Green being comfortable with another small defender (Stecher is probably enough for them). Not my opinion, but my feel for what those 2 will prioritize, which is why I see them going for Bouchard/Dobson first, unless Gradin is lobbying heavily for Boqvist (assuming he is still available at 7th).

  • LAKID

    If you are so worried about Bouchards skating pick him and then trade him to the flames for next years first and two seconds, that way you will have the first and two seconds next year. Benning will look like a genius and Linden can continue watching Gilligan’s Island during the draft.

  • TD

    Are the videos representative of Bouchard’s shift in/shift out performance? Or are they occasional lapses in his game? I have found Harman to be fair in his articles, but have a hard time believing the videos could be representative of most of Bouchard’s shifts. If they were, he wouldn’t be ranked in the top ten of the draft. The videos could represent the worst examples of identified skating issues. Goldobin made Doughty look like a chump on one play this past year, but obviously Doughty is one of the premiere d men in the league.

    This article does a good job pointing out the issues with Bouchard’s skating, but I would like more context how often those issues show up in a game. Do they happen at the end of long shifts? When he played over 30 minutes in a game? Do they happen once, twice or 20 times a game? This article made Bouchard look like someone who may not get drafted at all, while he is likely going to be a top 10 pick.

    • Harman Dayal

      I completely understand your concerns. To make it clear, Bouchard’s skating isn’t a liability like it is with someone like Gudbranson — rather it’s a limitation that inhibits his ability to excel in certain aspects of the game.

      I tried my absolute best to be objective and highlight both the strengths and weaknesses in his game(his straight line backwards skating is good, he does a fine job of defending the rush when he does maintain a tight gap to keep the forward in front of him, and he has good top-end speed for someone of his size).

      I’d look at the conclusion at the end as an overall evaluation of Bouchard’s skating when considering the sum of the footage I watched.

    • Kneedroptalbot

      I just have a feeling…they should pass on Bouchard? ….
      Not sure why, maybe because slow D-men get beat on the outside, and odd man rushes so much in today NHL

  • Kneedroptalbot

    I just have a feeling…they should pass on Bouchard? ….
    Not sure why, maybe because slow D-men get beat on the outside, and odd man rushes so much in today NHL.

    • Spiel

      It is a tricky call. Even with his documented skating deficiencies, Bouchard has had elite offensive production. What is easier to teach, better skating technique or the ability to think the game and make plays?
      Not mentioned in the article are Bouchard’s combine results: 1st in Aerobic fitness test, 3rd in VO2max.
      My inclination for a d-man would be to lean toward the better skater if I project similar offensive upside since a better skater will tend to be the better defensive player.

      • truthseeker

        Yeah, I’m pretty much of the belief that basically anything can be taught. “natural talent” is an over rated overused comment. Sure there is some “natural talent” at the very highest levels that sets apart a Gretzky from an Yzerman or Sakic. But aside from that, it’s over 90% hard work and proper training that makes someone good at something.

        Something like skating is a learned skill. Pretty much 100%. Only the acceleration speed would be close to “natural” ability but even that can be worked on. Fast twitch muscles can be focused on to increase those areas of weakness.

        People talk about Bo as if he’s some outlier because he gained excellent speed when he was supposed to be a slow player. Nonsense. He just trained properly, and focused on those specific things to change what he needed to change.

        Hire the kid a skating coach like Bieksa has or whatever and work with him hours and hours every day. All those skating issues in the videos can be dealt with, through hard work. (make sure he’s willing to put in that work before drafting him…lol)

  • Chaosphere462

    to NYR: Lockwood/Baertschi/Hutton
    to VAN: 9th overall

    to DALLAS: Tanev/2nd Round
    to VAN: 13th overall

    VAN drafts:
    7th: Hughes
    9th: Dobson
    13th Veleno

    Imagine walking out of the 1st round with those three players?

    • LTFan

      Imagine – yes – but there is Zero chance that anything remotely close to that will happen. IMO the Canucks will keep their pick and take either Bouchard or Dobson if either of them are still available.

      • Chaosphere462

        It’s not as unrealistic as you think. Look back to the ‘99 draft when Burke made moves for 2nd and 3rd overall to draft the Sedins. That scenario seemed pretty unrealistic too but it happened.

        As for the movement of draft picks, I have targeted teams that either have multiple picks in the first round or are in win now scenarios. The Rangers have 3 picks in the 1st round so they might be open to moving one. Dallas needs to win now while their window is open.

        Of course this is a dream scenario but we are Canucks fans and that’s all we have at the moment.

          • Chaosphere462

            That’s the price of business. We as fans tend to overvalue our own players. In Tanevs 8 years as a pro, he has never once played a full season or eclipsed 20 pts. Yes he has great defensive abilities but you have to add value for initiative in the trade. Hamonic went for 2 second round draft picks so I guess I could be under estimating his value a bit. I don’t think the trade would be had straight up for Tanev.
            Obviously, this is me just drafturbating and hoping Benning does something to accelerate the rebuild.

          • truthseeker

            Nope. For some reason Canuck fans seem to have over compensated in the other direction with Tanev and think he’s worth way less than he is. He’s basically the best shot suppressing D man in the NHL. And that’s not an exaggeration. His injuries, while irritating are not chronic type injuries. When he’s healthy he’s healthy. And he is a way better D man than Hamonic. Like it’s not even close. Hamonic had 11 points in 74 games and sucked defensively. Tanev had the same number of points in 42 games and was a positive player on a terrible team.

            And you’re wrong about the trade. It was a first rounder this year, and 2 second round picks.

            Plus trade precedent shows D has absolutely huge value. Trading pretty much the best defensive defenseman in the game for a first round pick? Absolutely ridiculous. Minimum is a current young roster player or top prospect plus a team’s first rounder. If it’s any worse than that, then it’s not worth trading him. He provides way more value to the canucks over the next two years (or more if resigned) than a single first round pick. Not even the Hamonic deal would be worth it in my mind. Draft picks are too unreliable.