Should the Canucks keep the seventh overall pick, they’ll have no shortage of sensible options when they walk up to the podium on June 22nd in Dallas. Two of the most intriguing prospects among that cohort are right-handed defencemen, Evan Bouchard and Noah Dobson.
Ranking one above the other is a difficult task — one that’s yielded divisive results among the public scouting industry.
A detailed breakdown comparing their abilities in each of the key facets of a defenceman’s game can provide clarity on a debate that’s yet to establish a consensus.
Being able to fluently move around the ice in a league that’s trending towards speed and skill is imperative for success at the NHL level.
Both defencemen move well in straight-lines with long and powerful strides, but it’s Dobson’s deft footwork and impressive acceleration that makes him a decisively superior skater compared to Bouchard.
Dobson’s strength on his edges is apparent with the way he’s able to control his stride as he rounds the corner. It’s that turn that couples with his two-step quickness as he heads up the ice that allows Dobson to separate himself from the forechecker.
That same acceleration lends itself as an asset when jumping up in the rush.
This contrasts Bouchard who lacks explosiveness to create separation.
I wrote a piece last week that was solely dedicated to taking a comprehensive look at Bouchard’s skating, so I’d recommend checking that out for an extensive breakdown. Ultimately, skating won’t be a liability for Bouchard like it is for some players, but his acceleration, edgework and turns will hinder his effectiveness in some aspects of play moving forward — many of which we’ll tackle in this piece.
Puck Moving Ability
Transitioning play up the ice is among the most valuable assets that each of these defencemen owns. Where the difference lies between them is in the contrasting ways they’ll achieve those successful breakouts once they graduate into the professional ranks.
One immediate advantage for Dobson is in the way he’s calmly able to skate the puck out of danger. He’s cerebral and methodical under pressure; effortlessly able to navigate around pressure. It’s a quality closely correlated with feet movement, so it’s no surprise to see him stand out in this regard.
Bouchard might be limited in this regard due to his mediocre acceleration, but he’s a force in his own right when given the time and space to pick up steam.
The problem is that he’ll struggle to consistently find that time and space against the better forechecking teams in the NHL. In the second clip, for example, Bouchard is fortunate to have room to move because of the extremely slow skating of 6-foot-8 Spitfires’ forward Curtis Douglas from the half wall.
The puck moves faster than any player on the ice though, and in this regard, Bouchard’s passing and vision in transition stand head and shoulders above the defencemen in this draft class save for Rasmus Dahlin and Adam Boqvist.
Bouchard always has his head up with the hope of either catching the opposition off guard with a stretch pass or using the boards for a creative breakout. I’d like to see him improve his decision making and force fewer passes up the middle(many of which led to icings and turnovers), but that’s a nitpick that can easily be fixed with coaching. What can’t be taught, on the other hand, is the exquisite accuracy of Bouchard’s outlet passes.
Microdata that The Athletic’s Mitch Brown tracked reflected well on each blueliner’s transition skillset.
Where the two differ in their results are controlled exit percentage and success rates. Bouchard’s lower success rate falls in line with my belief that he forced difficult passes that led to turnovers, whereas Dobson appeared to limit his failures with a safer approach that included its fair share of clearances.
As the entry numbers can attest, both players were also effective on the rush. When they weren’t carrying the puck into the zone themselves, they were often joining it as second or third options. Dobson might hold an edge in this area because of his separation gear, but Bouchard was no slouch in picking up speed to catch up to the play either. Furthermore, Bouchard has superior instincts when driving to the net — always aware of which lane to take to be most effective.
While both Dobson and Bouchard own a good first-pass, they’ll differ at the NHL level with how they transition play out of the defensive zone. Bouchard will need to be more reliant on his processing ability, vision and playmaking, whereas Dobson will lean towards carrying the puck using his speed.
Either way, both defenders project to be pivotal contributors at moving the puck up the ice.
Playmaking and Vision
If Dobson thinks the game a step ahead of the play in the offensive zone, Bouchard thinks of it two steps ahead.
That assertion isn’t an indictment on Dobson’s vision or playmaking acumen, but rather a special testament to the way Bouchard sees the ice. The latter is incredibly patient with the puck — willing to hold back from firing into an open shooting lane to instead open up a more dangerous passing seam.
Bouchard always has his head up and on a swivel, looking to evaluate his options before he receives the puck regardless of his positioning in the offensive zone.
Connecting on passes in tight spaces has become the norm for Bouchard, who has an expansive arsenal of nifty backhand, saucer and slap passes.
Unlike Bouchard who capitalizes on defensive inefficiencies with his creative passing ability, Dobson uses his mobility with and without the puck. He processes the game well — understanding how to create and identify new space and lanes. Dobson achieves the former by proactively shifting off the puck and switching positions with his point partner on the man advantage.
With the puck, he loves to dart down the right wing boards from the point when he sees an empty lane.
These assets aren’t enough for Dobson to come remotely close to Bouchard’s primary shot and scoring chance assist rates, though.
Primary shot assists and scoring chance assists are recorded each time said player makes a pass that directly leads to a shot and/or a scoring chance. It’s a small sample size to draw from, but a telling sign nonetheless.
Statistically, Dobson and Bouchard are neck and neck when it comes to shot generation. Dobson was fourth among QMJHL skaters with 276 shots, while Bouchard finished 2nd among all OHL players for the same category with 297 of his own. Conversion became the difference as Bouchard finished with eight more goals than Dobson for a total of 25 for the season.
In this case, I think that goal totals are more indicative of their shooting capabilities as opposed to shots on net. Dobson owns a decent shooting package, but he has a tendency to pepper the net with low-percentage shots from the point that largely end up in the goalie’s crest or glove. Bouchard is more selective with letting attempts fly, but more importantly, his shot itself has characteristics that will make it a potent weapon in the NHL.
Power is the obvious strength when looking at Bouchard’s slapshot and one-timer, but the accuracy is almost as impressive. He packages that shot with a poise that’s transparent in the instances where he’ll hang onto the puck for a split second longer to create a more dangerous shot attempt. That can mean faking a shot to buy a moment for his teammates to create traffic, or simply waiting for the shooting angle to change so he can get the puck past the first man in traffic. Bouchard also excels at driving the puck on net low in the hopes of finding tips and creating rebounds. This contrasts Dobson, who often wrists long pucks on net without the conscious intention of finding deflections or shooting at the pads to generate second-chance opportunities.
Technique wise, Bouchard releases the puck well on his shots. His short windup doubles as a way of firing quick passes into newly created coverage holes. Speaking of passing, Bouchard’s lethal shot commands respect that indirectly benefits the team. Opposing team members can be overzealous in their commitment to block Bouchard’s shooting lane — consistently leaving the back door open for him to thread a pass.
Both defencemen were able to beat goalies cleanly with their shot in junior, but Dobson will have to improve both his velocity and accuracy to do the same against professional goaltenders.
Own Zone Play
Both Dobson and Bouchard hold natural advantages away from the puck due to their 6-foot-3 frames. They have long reaches, are effective at taking the man in puck battles, and box out forwards well near the goal mouth.
Apart from these few similarities, Dobson and Bouchard couldn’t be more different in the way they approach defending.
For his part, Dobson is always proactive in the defensive zone — coupling quick processing ability and excellent mobility to anticipate plays and take time and space away from the opposition.
On the surface, the second clip may seem like an elementary check, but watch Dobson’s movement before the pass is even made. He shifts to the corner in anticipation of a pass as soon the Rempart’s forward picks up the puck at the half-wall.
Dobson does overcommit and position too aggressively on occasion, but it’s a habit that can be refined with maturity and coaching.
Bouchard differs in that he prefers to drift to the middle of the ice and remain relatively stationary to protect the high danger scoring positions. It’s a sound principle in logic, but issues arose when Bouchard refused to move his feet to adjust for coverage holes.
A caveat one should keep in mind, however, is the obscene minutes that Bouchard played for his depleted London team. You’re bound to pace yourself if you know you’re going to be playing 30+ minutes.
Even still, I don’t see Bouchard suddenly becoming great in his own zone with easier minutes. He needs to improve his footwork, edges and first two steps to better close gaps and angles in the defensive zone.
Down low, both players are strong, but it’s Dobson that holds a slight edge with his mobility. The Summerside, PEI native relies on his deft edgework to maintain a tight gap; choosing to activate his strong stick work to disrupt possession when he sees the attacker expose the puck for even a split second.
Both players were deployed in key defensive situations for their teams, but it’s Dobson that takes the cake as the markedly better player defending in his own zone.
Neutral Zone Defence
In a league that’s prioritizing high-end speed and skill, guarding the blueline is among the strongest assets for a defenceman. Preventing controlled entries into the offensive zone is critical when considering that they’re twice as likely to produce shot attempts relative to dump-ins.
For Dobson, this sticks out as one of his best skills. The same combination of anticipation, mobility and reach that made him successful in the defensive zone, proves its merit when defending the rush.
Explosive lateral movement, tight gap control and adept stickwork are the pillars for Dobson’s neutral zone success.
His counterpart Bouchard isn’t nearly as consistent in his performance, but he too has his moments where he snuffs out dangerous counterattacks.
Bouchard’s success defending the rush is predicated on maintaining a tight gap and keeping the attacker in front of him. When he’s unable to do one of these, he either drops back passively to protect the middle(which affords the attacker lots of time and space to make a play) or he’s burned for speed after a slow turn.
You’d like Bouchard to then play a tighter gap to keep the man in front of him, but it’s not as simple as that. If he plays the wrong angle or closes half a step late, he knows he doesn’t have the agility and speed to recover like Dobson.
The difference between the two’s neutral zone defence is also apparent when comparing CHL microdata.
As I mentioned in my last article covering Bouchard, it’s important to understand that the results would have been skewed against him to a degree because of the neutral zone trap I noticed London playing.
In this case, the eye test would be a better judge, for which, Dobson still remains the better neutral zone defender.
We’ve covered a whole lot of information, so let’s recap the results for each category.
Puck Moving Ability: Draw
Playmaking and Vision: Bouchard
Own Zone Play: Dobson
Neutral Zone Defence: Dobson
As the assessment above indicates, there isn’t a whole lot separating Noah Dobson and Evan Bouchard. I give Dobson the leg up considering his all-around plaudits and consummate skating ability, but it’s up to the individual team to figure out what type of right-handed defenceman they want.
Want the blueliner with incredible offensive instincts and playmaking ability? Go with Evan Bouchard. Looking for a defenceman who can log heavy minutes in all situations and effectively contribute in all three zones? Call Noah Dobson’s name in Dallas and get a coveted combination of size, speed and skill from the backend.
As it pertains to the Canucks, they need a workhorse who can play in all situations on the right side and Dobson presents that potential in spades. Evan Bouchard is a fantastic prospect in his own right, but I don’t see him as the ideal choice at seventh overall. Certainly not if Noah Dobson is still on the board when the Canucks walk up to the podium to make their pick.
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