Is Ethan Bear really that good?
It is tempting to conclude that Ethan Bear’s performance is buoyed by Connor McDavid’s. After all, McDavid is first on the team, and Bear mostly shares the ice with him. But that entirely ignores Head Coach Dave Tippett’s assessment of the player. Bear is out there with McDavid because he’s the best option.
And Bear is also killing penalties this year, on the primary PK unit. Clearly, Tippett thinks Bear is the best right shot blueliner the team has. This prompted me to speculate what it is about Ethan Bear that makes him so special. So I kept a closer eye on him over the last few games, until he was injured by an errant puck to the face.
The Healthy Scratch
I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the fact Ethan Bear was scratched from the roster early in the season. That came after he was benched in a 5-1 loss. In that loss, Tippett was critical of Ethan Bear’s read on a play, that led to a bad goal against.
Since then, Bear’s play has improved considerably, along with the team in general. There haven’t been any hiccups since then, and I have no reason to believe it was anything other than a shaky start. And not just for him, but for the whole team. After all, there was no preseason this year. The Oilers’ power play was also having trouble connecting, but that also seems to be behind them.
How is he so good?
Right before he was hurt, Ethan Bear was doing two things exceptionally well. He was neutralizing the forecheck and creating clean breakouts from his own end.
Now, this answer is too simplistic. These are fundamental elements of defending. But if you can do the fundamentals perfectly, a coach will ask for nothing more. And Bear was doing these fundamental things very well.
The next question is how. In Ethan Bear’s case, it comes down to two things – high hockey IQ and good edges. Next, I’ll break it down and explain how Bear’s hockey IQ and edges are helping him out.
Neutralizing the forecheck in the neutral zone
Anticipation is helping Ethan Bear effectively neutralize forechecking attempts. In the games I watched, he was always ahead of the puck. The opposing team wasn’t able to get it past him. Whether they flipped the puck up, trickled it in, or dumped it deep, Bear was always there first.
This is where Bear’s hockey IQ stands out. He knows where to be before anyone else does. In the same situations, other players would have to chase the puck into their own zone. Ethan Bear isn’t chasing pucks around. He knows where the puck is going to be before it gets there.
Winning puck battles
And then when the other team manages to establish a forecheck, Ethan Bear is winning the battles on the boards. In one of the games against Toronto, he handily won two puck battles against John Tavares, who is known for being hard to take the puck off of. Bear made it look easy.
That same game, Bear also won a battle that came off of a race to the corner against Zach Hyman. I thought that was noteworthy because later in the game, Hyman won the puck from Tyson Barrie in a similar situation.
Bear is winning these battles because of both hockey IQ and his edges.
A player’s “edges” are essentially a player’s ability to accelerate or change direction. In Bear’s case, he has fabulous edges. He puts those edges on display when he wins battles on the boards. Bear’s hockey IQ allows him to predict where he will get to the puck first, and his superior edges ensure that he can physically accomplish it. And once he has the puck, he can create separation between himself and the forechecker.
Now, good edges and anticipation aren’t the only way to win a battle on the boards. Often, players will use their size and strength to overpower their opponent. Strength is important for edges too. Bear isn’t a big player, but he is strong on his edges, and that makes it hard to take the puck from him once he has it.