The 2019-20 season has had its share of surprises, and the success of the Edmonton Oilers ranks high among them.
Through more than one quarter of the season, the Oilers sit tied with the Boston Bruins for second in the league, and the outstanding play of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who are first and second in league scoring with 48 and 47 points respectively, is largely to thank for that. Supplementing the play of the Oilers' two star scorers has been the puckstopping of Mikko Koskinen, who has proven his doubters wrong by beginning his four-year deal with a bang, posting among the league's best numbers through his 14 appearances. But perhaps the biggest surprise on a team many expected to miss the playoffs is the play of rookie defenseman Ethan Bear.
Two years removed from his last shot in the NHL – a shoulder injury prevented Bear from cracking the lineup last season and the depth roles were filled by a host of veterans – Bear wasn't considered the first choice to start the season in the NHL, not on a defensive depth chart that was beginning to get clogged by the likes of Evan Bouchard, Caleb Jones, Joel Persson and Dmitri Samorukov. But a standout camp from the 22-year-old, not to mention an additional season of experience in the AHL, helped him crack the lineup straight out of training camp, the only of the aforementioned blueliners to make the opening-night lineup. He hasn't just made his way into the lineup, however. Rather, Bear has flourished, skating in each of Edmonton's 26 games this season, slide into a spot on the Oilers' top pairing alongside Darnell Nurse and earn more ice time – 21:06 per game – than any other NHL rookie.
"There might not be a harder-working player in the lineup – outside of Connor McDavid – than Bear," one scout said of the rookie defender. "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."
Bear plays a simple game. That simplicity has done wonders for his NHL performance, with Oilers coach Dave Tippett showing a willingness to throw the inexperienced blueliner in any situation without hesitation. "Not many players can go from tasting the NHL to not getting a second opportunity for two years and thrive," the scout said. "But his game is more refined. His fitness level is incredible, he's faster and the Oilers seem comfortable allowing him to rush the puck down the ice and play key power-play minutes."
Statistically, his eight points in 26 games aren't anything special, but of all Oilers defensemen with at least 10 games played, Bear is the leader with a 51.2 Corsi percentage at five-a-side. Measured against other rookie blueliners, that puts Bear a step behind the Vancouver Canucks' Quinn Hughes (54.60) but ahead of the Colorado Avalanche's Cale Makar, who is the clear-cut Calder Trophy favorite. "Even if he doesn't put up big offensive numbers – 40 points might be his ceiling during his career – he hasn't stepped into a top-four position by accident," the scout said. "He has extreme confidence and his speed allows him to blast back to the point better than most. The extra development in the AHL is starting to pay off."
Bear, a pending RFA, is one of more than a dozen Oilers set to become a free agent next summer, but his small sample size will likely prevent him from cashing in on a lucrative deal. But Bear has stepped ahead of the rest of his defensive counterparts in the system, and if he is capable of evolving even further, he'll be an integral part of Edmonton's future. It's a future that's bright on the blueline, too: Bouchard still possesses a high ceiling, and Philip Broberg, Edmonton's first-round pick in 2019 (eighth overall), is still a few years away from making the jump, but he's having a fantastic year in Sweden.
While those two may have the most hype, though, Bear could become the calm, cool and collected presence for which the Oilers have been desperately searching.
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