When new Edmonton Oiler and projected top-four defenseman Joel Persson went down with a shoulder injury in the Oilers 4-2 preseason loss to the Arizona Coyotes, head coach Dave Tippett skated over to Ethan Bear the next day at practice and said “Knock knock”, implying that this was his chance to shine and grab an NHL roster spot.
On Thursday night, Bear burst through Tippet’s figurative closed door and grabbed his fate by the reins, exploding onto the scene with two goals and three blocks to highlight a solid two-way performance in the Oilers’ 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. With one exhibition game left to play and the Oilers still looking to fill the right defence hole alongside Oscar Klefbom, Bear’s revamped approach to the game and his sound 200-foot play so far this preseason has proven to the Oilers brass he is ready for NHL calibre minutes and has what it takes to be a staple on the team’s blue line.
Bear Turning Heads at Camp
Prior to training camp, Bear was coming off of an injury-riddled season with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL and was subject to a lot of criticism on his skating ability and demeanour with the puck on his stick. Fast forward past the Condors playoff run and a long offseason of hard training and diet transitioning, Bear showed up to Oilers camp in tip-top condition, being as strong and agile as ever looking to turn more than a few heads leading into this season.
In multiple press availabilities this past week, Dave Tippett has acknowledged the 22 year old’s lighthearted attitude on and off the ice making him a fun player to be around in the locker room. Not only does Bear have Tippett singing his praisesabout his personality traits, but the Oilers bench boss has consistently said how he has noticed how the young defenseman’s game has matured overall into a two-way force and is one of the fittest players at camp this year. If these public statements are not positive signs for the Ochapowace native’s chances of making the Oilers squad, then I don’t have any clue what those may look like.
High Stakes Competition
Over the course of the past two weeks, Bear has stood out amongst the likes of Persson, Evan Bouchard, Caleb Jones, and William Lagesson as a front-runner for a spot on the Oilers roster this year. More specifically, Bear has his eyes set on earning an opportunity to play on the right side of Oscar Klefbom in the early part of the season, with hopes of showing Tippett that he is more than ready to compete with Joel Persson for full time NHL duty. Though it remains to be seen if he is prepared to play top-four minutes, Tippett’s preference for playing left and right shot d-men on their natural sides certainly plays into Bear’s favour for a spot potentially on the third pairing, either elevating Matt Benning with Oscar Klefbom or potentially replacing him with Persson also in the fray. Being a right shot in this organization bodes well for the former 2015 fifth-round pick given the team’s need for a lethal opposite side shot on either power play unit and given the lack of NHL calibre right handed d-men there are in general on the Oilers roster.
Though Bear showed immense growth in a game against a Winnipeg squad missing notable players such as Blake Wheeler, Josh Morrissey, and Patrik Laine, the absence of quality competition cannot be used against him to deter his odds of making the team. Bear showed extreme poise with the puck in his own end when presented with the high pressure exiting the zone, an area of his game which was highly criticised when he played 18 games with the Oilers in the 2017-18 season. His play away from the puck was exceptional as well even though he was on for two goals against. On both goals, he had his man secured upon entry into the zone and ended up being outnumbered in the slot both times because the forwards did not pick up extra men in front.
What really stood out to me in the Winnipeg game was his offensive prowess. Leading defensemen with three shots on net and not getting caught pinching deep were two offensive capabilities which stood out to me, but what really caught my eye was his second goal where Bear received the puck, pivoted instantly opening up towards the slot, skated the puck backwards into scoring position, and fearlessly let a shot go. The quick pivot and offensive awareness of the screen in front were both examples of Bear’s grooming in the AHL and are indicators that he is ready to elevate his game to another level with the Oilers as a strong two-way defenseman.
Bear will likely crack the team as Klefbom’s defensive partner and will definitely give the coaches a lot to think about as the season goes on past the Oct. 2 home opener. This season will determine where he slots in long term on the Oilers blue line, where I think he will surely be a staple for the foreseeable future.