The Carolina Hurricanes’ defense core stands to look very different in the upcoming 2021-22 NHL season. Gone from their 2020-21 roster are Dougie Hamilton, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean, and Jani Hakanpaa – a quartet of defenders who played a combined 147 games for the team last season. The new faces will include former New York Rangers defenders Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith, veteran Ian Cole, and, my personal favorite of the bunch, 24-year old Ethan Bear. Safe to say, the group has had a serious revamp.
There’s a lot of skepticism amongst the fanbase over if the Hurricanes’ roster moves have actually improved the team or not, but the acquisition of Bear is one that was very well received. On July 28 – the first day of free agency – the Hurricanes acquired him from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for forward Warren Foegele. It was quite apparent that Foegele’s time in Raleigh had concluded, so to get a player of Bear’s caliber in return for him was a phenomenal trade – especially when you consider the upside that Bear could provide in Carolina.
As with all trades, this deal gives both players a fresh start in a new environment. It could specifically provide a career boost for Foegele, who’d seemingly plateaued as a third-line energy forward in Carolina. Back in June, Frank Seravalli reported that Foegele was hungry for more ice-time and a bigger role, and it was always unlikely that the Hurricanes would be the team to give that to him.
After awarding him a three-year, $2.75 million AAV deal, the Oilers may believe they can get more production out of him than the Hurricanes did, which is definitely a bit of a risk. Foegele has always been plagued by his lack of finishing ability, slow hands and reaction time. Based on the 200 games he played in Raleigh, I’d never gotten the sense that Foegele had more to offer offensively, and it’s fair to assume that the Hurricanes’ front office came to the same conclusion.
It’s super unrealistic to assume that placing Foegele in a new environment at age 25 will magically help him develop the hockey sense and puck skills that held him back from a top-six role in Carolina – so I’d add this trade to the expanding list of weird moves that the Oilers have made during this offseason. That list also includes their decision to move Bear, who’d become one of the bright spots on a blue-line that’s long been searching for answers.
On the flip side, the Canes’ decision to liberate Bear from an Oilers system that has notoriously struggled to develop and get the best out of their defensemen was a strong one. It’s even stronger when you consider that it only took Foegele to get the deal done. Trading a bottom-six winger for a right-shot defenseman who just turned 24-years old is spectacular value and has the potential to be a home-run trade if the Hurricanes can keep Bear on the same trajectory that he’s been on.
I can’t say that I followed Bear very closely during his time as an Oiler, but the tape that I’ve watched since the trade was announced has me very excited about how he’ll fit in the Canes’ system. He was a really popular player amongst the Oilers fanbase and is generally a really good kid. He’s a smart and efficient two-way presence who doesn’t take many unnecessary risks and is a great puck-mover in transition. He’s not exactly large at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds, but he plays with a fiery edge and is a willing competitor along the wall.
The area that I feel both the Hurricanes and Bear stand to really benefit is with how active the team wants their defensemen to be. The team’s offensive strategy is predicated on defensemen carrying the puck out from their own end and being very aggressive with their pinching in the offensive zone. And while that strategy has been disastrous for players like Hakanpaa and Joel Edmundson, it’s an area that Bear excels in and will allow him to play to his strengths.
Bear has a rather polished offensive game despite a dip in production last season with just two goals and eight points in 43 games. He’s a smooth skater, and he routinely makes sharp tape-to-tape passes in transition. From his own zone, his vision is above average, and he’s consistently able to pull forecheckers out of position with his eyes. In the offensive zone, he can pick out open teammates and makes smart, efficient plays. His shot isn’t great by any means, but he has a deceptively quick release with his wrist shot and was the second-best defenseman on the Oilers at getting his shots through traffic (behind only Darnell Nurse). He’s also really good at finding open space and can convert from in the slot:
As a defender, Bear engages in board battles and throws himself around despite not being a very large kid, and his hockey sense aids him a lot in his own end. He’s very smart defensively, and he uses structural advantages like positioning and stick placement to separate attackers from the puck. He is quick at transitioning the puck up the ice and doesn’t take many unnecessary risks behind his own net. He’s patient and waits for outlets to develop. He also played quite regularly for the Oilers on the penalty kill last season (1:48 per game), and, despite some tough results, he has a lot of room for growth in that area.
Short & Long-Term Gain
Suffice to say, there’s a lot of reason for optimism regarding Bear’s future in the organization. He’s going into the final year of a two-year deal that he signed with Edmonton back in 2020 and will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022. The Hurricanes regime hand-picked him, so it’s evident that the front office likes the player, and he’s young enough that he can fit in as part of the core group moving forward. Regardless, he remains in team control and can be used as a trade asset if his transition into the system doesn’t go as seamlessly as expected.
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As far as his role next season, Hamilton’s departure opens up a big hole on the right side of the Canes’ defense. Brett Pesce remains the top option, but reuniting him with Jaccob Slavin on the top pair could cause problems for the team’s depth in their bottom four. That makes it quite likely that either Bear or DeAngelo could step into a top-pairing role beside Slavin, while the other would play alongside rugged veteran Ian Cole on the 3rd pair.
Bear proved last season that he could handle tough assignments and compete in a top role. He spent 261 minutes playing with Darnell Nurse at even strength during the regular season, and they formed the Oilers’ top pairing for a good chunk of the 2020-21 season. They really controlled play, with a 59.1 Expected Goals-For (xGF) percentage and a 54.1% Corsi-For (CF%) at 5-on-5. Statistically, those results made the Nurse-Bear pairing the strongest pair that the team iced all season, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that they achieved those metrics playing against the opposition’s top scoring lines.
The track record of success makes me very excited about Bear’s opportunity to grow in the Canes’ system. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s tactics really fit the strengths and overall style that’s made him a successful defender in the league, and he’ll be joining a defense core that’s sheltered with much more talent than he had around him in Edmonton. He’ll be deployed in positions to thrive and could even carve out a role on the power-play. I can really see him evolving into a true all-situations defender, and he unquestionably has enough talent to justify it.
If Bear settles into the system and plays consistently smart and aggressive style, this trade could be looked back on as one of the best of the Don Waddell era. He has legitimate top-four upside and is only scratching the surface as a player, and the Hurricanes snagged him without giving up any assets that would hurt their immediate or long-term future. It’s a totally risk-free move that could reward the team with a reliable top-four defender for the next 5-10 years and will surely help the Canes throughout the course of their competitive window.
Carolina Hurricanes writer. 23 years old. Ottawa, Canada. Prospect geek, hockey nerd.