Memorial Cup struggles indicate it's best to be patient with Ethan Bear

In the 2017 Memorial Cup, Edmonton Oilers prospect Ethan Bear played three games, scored not one point and was -4 goals plus-minus. 

Stats don’t always tell the truth about a player, but those numbers are indicative of Bear’s Memorial Cup. Bear struggled to keep his head above water, as did almost everyone on the Seattle Thunderbirds, which lost all three games and was blown out in two of them. 

So that’s the bad news on Bear, and we’ll get into a bit more detail below, but the good news is he had an outstanding year overall in Seattle. His play pushed him to be ranked #2 behind only Jesse Puljujarvi on Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell’s list of top Oilers prospects.

Wrote Mitchell on Bear: “You could make a strong argument for Bear’s season as the best in the system (outside NHL). He ended up winning WHL Defenseman of the Year, posted 67gp, 28-42-70 and playoffs 17gp, 6-20-26. It is always best to bet on patience when it comes to defenders, and Bear’s skating and reaction are going to face a learning curve in pro. Ranking reflects his outstanding season.”

That’s a high ranking, but Mitchell is far from alone in thinking highly of Bear. I see plenty of online chit chat about Bear maybe helping the Oilers this coming year, even providing a right shot option on the power play to work with Connor McDavid. 

Me, I’m more bearish on Bear’s prospects. He’s doing well for a player taken in the fifth round, but there are reasons he was taken there, namely his lack of size and some mobility issues. Bear’s going to get bigger and stronger, of course, and he can also work on his skating ability, but he looks to be a few years away from challenging for an NHL job. 

I’d have him eighth or ninth on my own list of Oilers prospects, even as the 5-foot, 11-inch, 205-pound defenceman, who turns 20 in June, has improved his offensive output significantly each year in junior hockey. He went from 0.34 points per game as a rookie to o.55 per game in his draft year, 2014-15, when the Oilers took him 124th overall. Last year he average 1.0 points per game. This year pushed that to 1.16 points per game. 

In the playoffs, Bear had 26 points in 17 games, with 17 of those points coming on the power play, where he is an excellent passer, walks the line well and has a wicked one-timer shot. That shot wasn’t evident so much in the Memorial Cup because Bear was playing with an injured hand. 

On the plus side, Bear is strong with the puck, especially at the offensive blueline, where he both whips hard and accurate passes and also finesses softer passes, almost all of them right on the tape and in the wheelhouse of the player he is passing to. His one-timer shot and those passing skills are exceptional for a major junior player. 

He also showed ability to win board battles, deftly using his body to angle and pin opposing players and steal away the puck. In the slot, he also tended not to be a puck watcher, but would instead go to where the real danger was and attempt to cover the shooter in the slot (though not always successfully). 

On the downside, Bear was a big part of a Seattle defense that leaked Grade A chances and goals against. He was often caught giving too much gap or losing key battles, sometimes because of  a lack of size and speed. If he gives too much gap, he’s not lanky enough to reach and get stick-on-puck, so he’s got to be right on his check, and he wasn’t always able to do that. That’s where his skating needs to improve, so he can confidently and aggressively get on his check.

I don’t want to make too much of his Memorial Cup struggles except to note they speak to the need to be cautious in expecting too much, too soon from this player. 

There’s going to be a huge battle for playing time in Bakersfield next year with Bear, Caleb Jones, Dillon Simpson, Ryan Mantha, Ziyat Paigin, Ben Betker, possibly Jordan Oesterle, possibly Mark Fayne, and perhaps others battling for playing time there. If Bear can come out of that group and first earn a regular shift, then earn Top 4 duty, as well as make his mark on the power play, that will be a strong first pro year for the player. 

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Source: EDMONTON