Friday night in Cedar Park, Texas, Edmonton Oilers prospect Xavier Bourgault delivered an impressive performance.
The young winger scored short-handed on a breakaway, had another breakaway with his Bakersfield Condors a man short, picked up an assist, had three shots on goal and finished 2-0 at even-strength goals while he was on the ice. He also set up a couple of teammates for gorgeous looks.
It’s the kind of showing Oilers fans have been waiting for from the 2021 first-round selection.
To say this season has been frustrating for Bourgault and the Oilers would be an understatement.
Bourgault’s scoring totals are down. He plays right wing, a position the Oilers could use some help. The two-way game is there, his forechecking has been a big help on the penalty kill and his power-play point totals are solid to excellent.
So, what’s the problem?
Bourgault is not progressing as an even-strength scorer.
He is a productive player on both special teams. His most prominent moments come on the penalty kill, where his quickness and aggressive play often result in turnovers. Through 99 AHL games, Bourgault has three short-handed and eight power-play goals.
The issue is at even strength. Here are the 2023-24 numbers so far:
Bourgault’s short-handed game is impressive. He should have an NHL career based on that skill alone.
The fact he was taken in the first round, added to impressive numbers in junior, suggested more offence would be coming with him to pro hockey.
The power-play totals are rock solid, even impressive. They are no guarantee of NHL power-play time, but he might be able to grow into that role.
In his rookie season, Bourgaut’s even-strength totals (6-14-20) ranked him No. 6 among Condors forwards. Good, not great, for an AHL rookie.
On the plus side, his power-play numbers (5-7-12) were second best and his PK totals (2 goals) were also first.
Based on his first 99 games, Bourgault appears to be an effective special teams scorer but is a depth offensive player at even strength.
What’s the problem?
Bourgault does not possess a shot that can beat AHL goalies clean with enough frequency to project him as an impact AHL winger.
He is 99 games into his career, and his shooting percentage is not moving the needle in a way that suggests NHL success.
Looking at the last decade of Oilers prospects who played a significant amount in the AHL, Bourgault is near the bottom in career shooting percentage at the minor league level.
Last season, he had an 11.1 shooting percentage, and natural progression should have him in the same range as Dylan Holloway and Carter Savoie this season.
It might be a slump, Bourgault has had some bad puck luck around the net this season. He is only a couple of goals behind that pace and it isn’t unusual for players to slump during a 37-game span.
Bourgault’s shot volume is stagnant. He is averaging about 1.88 shots per game for his career, although recent (19 shots in six games, 3.2 shots per game) games have seen a spike.
Kailer Yamamoto delivered a shy shots-per-game total as an NHL player, but his shooting percentage (20.5) during 50 AHL games indicated he would be able to bring enough offence to survive on arrival in Edmonton.
Bourgault’s resume doesn’t offer the same level of hope. There are eight prospect forwards on the Condors with better shooting percentages, and he doesn’t shoot the puck often.
Bourgault scores many of his goals close to the net, whether it’s off the rush or (as was the case Friday night) on a breakaway.
Much of his offence comes on special teams and he does not own a high shooting percentage nor is he a volume shooter.
A comparable prospect in Oilers history is Magnus Paajarvi, who played in the AHL for the Oklahoma City Barons a dozen years ago. Paajarvi had a solid two-way reputation (Bourgault is building one) and a higher shot volume, but was a shy scorer when in the Edmonton organization.
Here are the stats for the two men during their respective entry-level deals in the AHL.
Two first-round picks, a dozen years apart, who could not beat a goaltender from range.
Paajarvi’s shooting percentage improved in the years that followed his time in the Edmonton organization, and he did play in 467 NHL games. That would be considered a successful career for Bourgault.
Per 82 games in the NHL, Paajarvi managed 11 goals and 22 points.
That’s bottom-six production and Paajarvi’s NHL career, while successful, should be considered below average for a player chosen at No. 9 in the draft.
Paajarvi was a complementary offensive player in the NHL, scoring well enough to stay in the top six when placed on a line with an offensive driver. The appeal for his coaches came in the responsible two-way play Paajarvi naturally possessed. His defensive acumen while playing with offensive wizard Linus Omark on a line in 2010-11 is legendary among Oilers fans.
Bourgault’s immediate future
His brilliant game on Friday in Texas could signal an uptick in performance. There’s a reason why everyone should wait five years after a draft before making the call on a specific player.
Bourgault’s junior shooting percentage (19.3) and shot volume (2.5 per game) should result in more offence in the AHL.
Factors include linemates in junior. Mavrik Bourque, who played with Bourgault in Shawinigan of the QMJHL, is having a far superior second season in the AHL. Bourque’s points per game in his first year in the AHL (0.67) was higher than Bourgault’s (0.55) and that gap has increased in Year 2.
Bourgault’s NHL role
If the young winger lands on a line with one of Edmonton’s skill centres upon NHL arrival, he could surprise offensively.
It’s more likely he serves a middle-six, two-way role in the NHL (should he arrive and stay).
The even-strength scoring is a concern.
The forechecking and penalty killing are a strength and will be useful if he makes the grade.
There’s plenty of time.
Edmonton is trying to win the Stanley Cup this spring, so Bourgault’s value to the parent club might be via the trade route.
His meagre offensive numbers probably aren’t enough for Bourgault to be a key piece in any trade at the 2024 deadline.
He is halfway through his five seasons post-draft. Oilers fans should hope for a spike.
Perhaps Friday in Texas was the spark.
(Photo: Marissa Baecker / Getty Images)