Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2018 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.
London defenseman Evan Bouchard can recall like yesterday the unsettling moment in the locker room a few days after the Knights made their fourth big trade in a span of six days in January.
The Knights captain remembers how difficult it was to see four friends (Cliff Pu, Max Jones, Robert Thomas, Sam Miletic), who each played a part in the 2016 Memorial Cup championship, moved to different teams in the Ontario Hockey League.
That's when Bouchard decided it was time to get the Knights re-focused for the second-half surge.
"In our first game after the trades (a 5-1 loss), I think guys were down because I think they thought we didn't have a strong enough team, so I decided to speak up along with the other leaders in our locker room," Bouchard said. "We reminded them that we did have a strong team and that we just had to believe that. When we ended up believing, it helped us win games."
London general manager Rob Simpson recalls the moment.
"I think for a while after the trade deadline, people were trying to establish an identity, and players coming in were trying to find where they fit in," Simpson said. "I think that Evan and our leadership group have done a good job bringing that group together. Not only getting it pointed in the right way but also helping everyone understand what their roles are and where they can be successful. It took a little bit of time, but it's a tribute to the leaders that we've won games and played well."
Bouchard has not only become a strong leader in the locker room, but along the blue line in his third OHL season. The 6-foot-2, 193-pound right-hand shot leads all OHL defensemen with 78 points (22 goals, 56 assists), six game-winning goals and 260 shots on goal in 61 games.
He is tied for eighth in points with forwards Boris Katchouk (Tampa Bay Lightning) of Sault Ste. Marie and Jason Robertson (Dallas Stars) of Kingston among all OHL skaters. The last defenseman to finish among the top 10 OHL skaters was Windsor's Ryan Ellis (77 points) in 2010-11.
"To have success as an NHL defenseman today, you have to do the little things right," Bouchard said. "It's a game of inches, so getting the pass to the stick of a guy who's open is important. Hitting him quickly before he's not open is critical, it's about moving the puck and making sure you're good in the defensive zone."
Bouchard had four assists for Team Don Cherry in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Guelph, Ontario, on Jan. 25. His four points equaled a record shared by five players: Daniel Briere (four assists in 1996), Trevor Wasyluk (goal, three assists, 1996), Greg Watson (two goals, two assists, 2001), Blake Comeau (goal, three assists, 2004) and Gilbert Brule (three goals, assist, 2005).
"Evan plays in key defensive situations as our first defender over the boards for our penalty kill and he runs the power play from the top," Simpson said. "He's a complete defenseman who plays in all situations, plays a lot of minutes each night and is really the cornerstone of our defense corps."
Bouchard is No. 5 in NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas on June 22-23. He is usually paired with No. 43-ranked Alec Regula, who has complemented Bouchard well.
"Bouchard is the type of player you want on your team," said Karl Stewart of NHL Central Scouting. "He's quick to get the puck, quick to transition the puck, and has a blast from the point. Opponents need to respect that when killing penalties."
Bouchard is a big fan of Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, but also has a similar style to St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
"I'm playing a bigger role this year and it's a role I think I've handled pretty well," Bouchard said. "I think the team has responded well with the changes and trades that were made. It's more of a leadership role for me so I have to keep helping the team that way, too."
Bouchard benefitted from playing with and watching many top prospects in London now competing in the NHL. At the top of that list are Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames), Mitchell Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs), Christian Dvorak (Arizona Coyotes) and Victor Mete (Montreal Canadiens).
"I think it's just watching and seeing how the pros really do stuff and how hard they worked, even last year," Bouchard said. "[Mete] puts in the work, they all put in the work, and that's something you have to do. Taking care of your body is also a very big thing."