For me, the surprise story of the 2020-21 season is the exact same story as last year – the ascendance of Right Shot Defenseman Ethan Bear.
Leading up to the 2019-20 Season, Ethan Bear was seen as a bubble prospect. He was drafted 124th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, and had spent 3 seasons with the Bakersfield Condors, the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL Affiliate. At the time, the First Round pick (No. 10 overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Evan Bouchard was seen as possibly being in a better position to make the jump into the NHL.
Instead, after a strong Training Camp, Bear was immediately inserted into Edmonton’s Top 4 Defensemen. On the depth chart, he had leapt ahead of not only Bouchard, but also an established NHLer in Matt Benning.
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And then Adam Larsson, then the Oilers’ first-pairing D on the right side, broke his foot in the first game. So it came down to Ethan Bear to play the big minutes. And that’s where he remained for the rest of the season – on the Oilers’ top pair.
In fact, Ethan Bear played the 5th most Even Strength Minutes in the entire NHL last season (1308:40 – as per natural stat trick). And he was 13th in the league in minutes played against elite competition (468.4 – as per PuckIQ).
For comparison, Quinn Hughes played 1132:54 at Even Strength (55th overall) and only 371 of those were against elite competition. Cale Makar only played 921:10 (119th overall) and 315.5 against elite. One can only imagine how much different Hughes or Makar’s seasons would have been, had they been played that much more.
Ethan Bear is the Edmonton Oilers’ deadly secret weapon
Even still, the Oilers were a slightly better team whenever Bear was on the ice. For a rookie to step into an NHL lineup, immediately play on the top pair and be effective, is a simply incredible feat.
Yet discussions about the Calder Trophy were focused on rookies like Makar and Hughes. I’m not suggesting that Bear should have been considered over them, but it is worth pointing out that they played sheltered minutes on their respective teams. Ethan Bear did not.
But it looked to me like that was about to change, when the Oilers signed Tyson Barrie in the offseason. I commented on this in more detail in an earlier article. With Barrie and a healthy Larsson, I assumed that Ethan Bear would be relegated to 3rd pairing minutes. Which is where most young defensemen begin anyway.
And I didn’t see that as a bad thing. It seemed to me that Bear would benefit from watching one of the NHL’s premier offensive specialists in Tyson Barrie. When he was drafted, Bear was touted as a future offensive specialist, just like Barrie.
But that wasn’t what happened to start the season. Instead, Ethan Bear was showing two proven NHL veterans how it was done. And what’s more, he was playing at an even higher-level than last season.
According to the numbers
A defenseman’s performance is notoriously hard to rate. The game is won by goals, and their job is to prevent them. So whenever you are rating their performance, it’s hypothetical. An established statistic is plus/minus. There is also Corsi and Fenwick, which both measure the shots and shot attempts taken for and against a player’s team, when they are on the ice.
On a team that has already allowed 43 goals (3rd worst in the entire NHL), Ethan Bear is plus 5. His Corsi and Fenwick are second best on the team, next to Connor McDavid (I got all these numbers from natural stat trick).
And that Corsi is almost 10% higher than the Oilers’ Corsi as a team. It would be hard to find many other players in the NHL with a margin that wide. To put that gap into perspective, when Ethan Bear isn’t on the ice, the Oilers are the 24th best team in the NHL. When he is on the ice, they’re nearly the best team in the NHL – just behind the Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and Colorado Avalanche.