Once again, this is where Bear’s IQ and edges shine.
He isn’t flashy in his end. He doesn’t make long passes, and he rarely transports the puck. However, his linemate Darnell Nurse does like to carry the puck out of the zone, and Bear is taking advantage of this.
Of course, edges are important for puck recovery. But they are also important for initiating a breakout. A fine example of that came late in the last game Bear played in. The puck came to him on a defensive zone faceoff. He didn’t see any good options, so he took three quick steps. By then, the far winger had opened up, and Bear hit him cleanly as he left the zone.
That last play I described was a good fundamental play. And that’s what Ethan Bear is doing well. He’s playing a very solid fundamental defensive game that’s mostly mistake-free. For comparison, I turn to his teammate Caleb Jones. Jones is the same age as Bear. They even went in the same round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. When Jones is out there, he often finds himself chasing the puck in his end. And several times he attempted breakout passes up the wall that resulted in a turnover. Bear’s not making mistakes like that. If he doesn’t have a good pass, he doesn’t make one.
The thing is, there’s nothing unusual about Caleb Jones. He is where he should be at his stage of development. Bear’s the odd man out. He has less than 100 NHL games under his belt, but he already looks like he’s played 1000. At least, when it comes to the areas he’s doing well.
Where Bear’s inexperience shows
The goal that got Ethan Bear benched in an early game resulted from a bad read. This is a classic rookie defenseman mistake. When bad pinches happen, the result is usually an odd-man rush. I noticed Bear occasionally getting caught up ice. I think his judgment on the offensive side probably still needs some work.
And to this point, Bear hasn’t driven much offense. As I mentioned in a prior article, Ethan Bear has a dangerous point shot, but he isn’t using it much. The other area of trouble for Bear is right in front of the net. Size matters there. As an undersized defender, he is having trouble clearing the crease, which leads to dangerous chances in front. I also don’t see him getting in front of a lot of pucks. For a player with good edges, getting into the shooting lanes should be easier.
What it all means
Probably the best way to describe Ethan Bear’s defensive ability is fundamentally sound, and well beyond his years. But there’s another layer to his game that we have yet to see. When Bear gets better accustomed to activating on offense, he’s going to start putting that dangerous shot of his to work.
His shot is dangerous for the same reasons his defense is good. With good edges, he can create separation from the opposing team’s checkers. And he’s able to recognize when to release a shot, such as when there’s going to be traffic in front of the net.
At 23, Bear is young for an established NHL first pairing D, but that’s what the Oilers have in him. And not only does that mean he’s already a very good player, but he’s going to get even better. On a team like the Edmonton Oilers, Ethan Bear can quietly ascend while Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl take all the attention way. But NHL players and fans alike should take notice. Bear’s rise through the Oilers’ ranks over the last two years has been nothing short of meteoric. And for the Oilers to find a first-pairing defenseman in the 5th round of the NHL Draft, that’s a welcome change from previous years.