On Feb. 9, in a post from The Hockey News, Steven Ellis wrote a nice piece on the up-and-coming 2020 RFA class of defensemen from around the NHL. He named the Edmonton Oilers’ Ethan Bear among those.
Ellis rightfully notes that the 23-year-old Bear works as hard as any young defenseman in the game and that his emergence comes at an interesting time for contract negotiations. Although it took Bear a long time to make the NHL and earn the right to stay on the Oilers’ roster, he’s certainly there now and will – unless something drastic happens – remain on that roster for a long time. That is if he and the Oilers can make a deal on the length and terms of his contract.
[By the way, Ellis believes something in the area of $5 million per season would be a good value for a player like Bear who shows such long-term potential. However, Darnell Nurse’s signing yesterday to a two-year extension at a team-friendly $5.6 million might set a precedent and baseline for any negotiations with Bear.]
Related: Oilers Sign Darnell Nurse to 2-Yr Extension
Bear’s Surprising Season
Bear’s emergence correlates with the improvement of the Oilers’ improved record during the season. Certainly, his personal success impacts the overall success of the team. All fans know that the Oilers have two tremendous assets in Connor McDavid and teammate Leon Draisaitl, who stand first and second in NHL scoring as I write this post with Draisaitl leading with 85 points and McDavid second with 81 points.
In addition to these two stars, the goaltending’s been solid enough and the team is beginning to get secondary scoring with the emergence of young Kailer Yamamoto and the continued great play of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and, when healthy, James Neal. But the play of Bear and the growth of the team’s defense have been especially promising.
Bear’s History with the Oilers
Last season Bear had a shoulder injury, which prevented him from cracking the lineup. When he began this season, few people believed he would be the first among the team’s cadre of young defensemen who would become an integral part of the team’s roster. That depth chart also included other strong candidates such as Evan Bouchard, Caleb Jones, Joel Persson, and Dmitri Samorukov. But, Bear surprised everyone by having a strong camp. The strength of his preseason showing, added to his seasoning in the AHL, helped him gain the roster right out of training camp.
For many, that was a surprise; however, it might not have been the biggest surprise. Not only did Bear make the roster, but he thrived. He skated his way onto the first pairing with Nurse and he’s stayed there. To point, he’s played in every Oilers game throughout the season and has averaged a whopping 21:26 minutes of ice time. That’s second in the NHL for all rookies, with only the Vancouver Canucks Quinn Hughes averaging more.
What Makes Bear So Special?
Reason #1: Bear Is Hard-working
Bear’s a special defenseman in part (and ironically) because he’s not special. Obviously, I’m playing with words here because he is special; however, he has three characteristics that make him a reliable blueliner have less to do with skill and more to do with attitude.
First, he’s absolutely hard-working. Ellis, in a post written in late 2019, quoted a scout who said that “There might not be a harder-working player in the lineup – outside of Connor McDavid – than Bear.”
The scout then outlined this narrative about the rookie defender, which makes sense: “This is a guy that went in the fifth round (124th overall in 2015), he isn’t big, doesn’t play physical and his consistency in shutdown situations were always a big concern. But not getting a call up to the big club after getting a taste of NHL action the year prior, that helped his determination and I don’t think we’ve seen his true potential yet.”
Reason #2: Bear Plays a Simple Game
The second reason Bear is so reliable is that he plays a simple game. Such simplicity leads to consistency. He doesn’t make many mistakes. That simplicity also has helped him refine his game.
Reason #3: Bear’s Fitness Level is High
The third reason Bear is so reliable is that he’s in such good shape. His fitness level is strong and, when he came back from the AHL, he was faster. The result is that the Oilers now can use him on the rush and during the power play. He’s able to log exceedingly high minutes of ice time and plays key power-play minutes without becoming exhausted.
Related: Cam Talbot And His Wife Comment on Fight With Oilers Mike Smith
Bear Will Be Part of a Strong Oilers’ Defense Going Forward
As noted, Bear’s extra experience in the AHL has helped him produce at the NHL level. Better yet for the Oilers, he’s not the only strong young defenseman in the system. As noted, the Oilers are stacked with prospects and potential.
This group will be moving through the system to the Oilers over the next few seasons, which is one reason the recent signing of Nurse to a two-year deal makes sense. Should Nurse want to stay with the Oilers, he can do so. Should he wish to leave for bigger bucks via free agency, he can do that, too.
Likely, Bear will be an Oiler for the foreseeable future. Although he’s having an incredibly good rookie season, he also has had only a single good NHL season. That lack of experience and success-over-time probably mediates his opportunity for a home-run salary. He hasn’t yet shown he can be productive season after season, which should be good for the Oilers who will have salary-cap issues trying to hold the key pieces of the team together.
Bear should sign a lucrative contract, but he likely won’t break the Oilers bank. Still, he’s young and has a high potential ceiling. Along with Bouchard, Jones, Persson, and Samorukov, he’ll be a strong part of the team’s future. By the way, the Oilers’ first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft Philip Broberg is playing in Sweden but is having a strong season as well.
Together, this young group of defensemen spells success for the Edmonton Oilers going forward.
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