It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hockey team in possession of a right-shot defensive prospect with experience quarterbacking a power play needs to do whatever is in their power to develop that prospect carefully and well.
When that team is the Edmonton Oilers, however, no one trusts that the development process will play out as it should.
Ethan Bear, a 2015 5th-round pick of the Oilers, has been relied on heavily this year by his WHL team, the Seattle Thunderbirds. One of Seattle’s top-pairing defensemen who also spends a good amount of time on the power play, Bear has already passed his point totals from last year — 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) in 62 games — for 59 points (18 goals, 41 assists) in 62 games.
Before the draft last season, ISS had this to say about Bear:
“Bear is a strong physical defender and has displayed strong shutdown upside this season with Seattle in the WHL and with Team Canada at the U18 World Championships. Does a lot of things well, but mainly plays a strong defensive and physical game. Strong in front of the net and along the boards, doesn’t run around in the defensive zone and has good positioning.
Developing decision-making on the puck although prefers the simple smart plays. Has shown above average hands and puck control with a good shot from the point. Upside is his ability to anticipate and read the defensive zone but able to move the puck with ease and showing improved confidence.”
Projected to go sometime around the 3rd round of the draft, Bear may have dropped because he is under six feet, albeit just barely. While his defensive game is still solid this year, playing on the top defensive pairing and getting plenty of power play time has helped Bear develop his offensive game as well.
He’s never going to be Erik Karlsson or PK Subban, but he reads the play in front of him well, reacts correctly, and is rarely forced into making the wrong play, even under pressure. He accounts for almost 11 percent of Seattle’s points as a defenseman this season, showing that he can contribute at both ends of the ice.
Bear is also a good skater, with above-average speed and acceleration, who can turn and pivot well. His skating skills are something that will serve him well in professional hockey, especially when combined with his read-and-react skills. The combination of the two is something that could make him difficult to play against.
According to WHLstats.ca, 54.24 percent of Bear’s points come on the power play, and while that percentage may seem high without context, it’s not a split that raises any immediate red flags when the rest of Bear’s game is taken into account. He’s got a heavy shot and isn’t afraid to use it, especially on the power play, where he’s scored just over 60 percent of his goals.
If he keeps up this trajectory, he projects as a reliable second-pairing defenseman for the Oilers, who should see plenty of power play time. When was the last time the Oilers developed a player like this in-house who wasn’t a first or second-round pick?
Because the majority of NHL defenders shoot left, teams are always searching for a high-level right-shot defenseman. The Oilers would do well to hang on to this one. Ensuring that Bear is developed correctly should be a top priority, because he’s a real standout in terms of their current defensive prospects.
He’s also a good mark in the books of the Oilers’ current scouting staff, because Oilers beat writers and fans alike have gotten all too used to seeing any picks outside the first or second rounds in recent years not pan out.
Perhaps the most important thing about Bear is that the Oilers have time to let him develop before they need to worry about fitting him into their NHL lineup. He’s only in his draft-plus-1 year, and has two more years of junior eligibility ahead of him (though the Oilers could choose to have him play that last year in the AHL).
At the end of the day, there are some defensemen in Bakersfield who may want to be looking over their shoulders, because he’s quietly climbing the ranks.