A veteran of a combined 314 regular season and playoff games over parts of five seasons with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, Bear has seen more than your average 20-year-old. He might be young, but one thing Bear isn’t short on is experience.
— OilersNation.com (@OilersNation) May 4, 2017
Last year, Bear helped lead a dominant Thunderbirds team to a WHL Championship and a spot in the Memorial Cup. Seattle was beaten summarily by their three eastern foes, but to get there alone was no small feat. Bear spent most of his WHL playoff run and the entire Memorial Cup tournament with a broken index finger. A direct consequence of that injury, Bear was forced to wear a glove that was more akin to the world of boxing than any piece of hockey equipment for weeks of action — this, of course, says nothing of the pain.
“I rehabbed it pretty good and it’s fully healed now,” Bear told Oilers Nation. “I got on the ice a couple of times, and got to work on the hands a little bit — it’s not really going to affect me anymore. It’s kind of past now. There [are] still some things I’d like to fix”.
In the Thunderbirds 17 game playoff run, Bear’s production actually increased with that club, likely thanks to his Total Shape program, going from 1.04 to 1.52 points per game. It’s almost hard to fathom how much better he could’ve been with a hand in place of the club that covered it for so much of his dominant post-season.
For Bear’s part, he sees the adversity as something that made the experience just that much more satisfying. To get through that adversity, and battle through to a WHL Championship; it’s an experience he’ll cherish for the rest of his career. “It was a very hard trip. I know we had a lot of adversity, through broken hands and illnesses” Bear said. “The way we won the [WHL] just made it more rewarding for us.”
“To win a championship like that with the team so close, it just makes you want to do it again. The feeling of winning just feels so good, so I’m definitely going to remember that and use that to motivate me, so when I’m playing for a different team and you’re making another playoff run you know what you’re playing for”.
That championship run had to be rewarding. Clearly, there just wasn’t anything left by the time the Thunderbirds made it to Windsor for the Memorial Cup. Seattle lost all three of their games, with a goal differential of -15 in that stretch. “[The WHL playoffs] definitely shows what the feeling is like to win, but at the same time, going out in the Memorial Cup shows you what it’s like to lose. So it was a long trek of ups and downs. It was still a positive experience.”
Now Bear has but one goal in mind: making the Oilers out of training camp. “Yeah, that’d be phenomenal” Bear said of making the jump to the NHL. “I still have a lot of work to do, and it’s not easy.”
When we look at Bear’s last season through the pGPS (Prospect Graduation Probabilities System) draft analytics metric, he has a higher chance than most of getting there. About 28% of the players who share a similar statistical and stature based profile to Bear in his last WHL season go on to make it to the NHL. The members of Bear’s cohort go on to produce about 30.6 points per 82 game season. That’s the kind of career outlook one would generally associate with late first-round talent, and even then, I think Bear’s chances are undersold. In this case, I wonder if pGPS undercuts Bear’s chances just by virtue of the fact that most players who produce like he does have already made the jump to professional hockey in some capacity.
Consider the fact that the majority of players who are as productive as Bear go on to build successful NHL careers when we look at his draft-plus-one season. I tend to think that a more accurate representation of Bear’s chances in the long run.
One of the reasons I can be so confident about Bear’s chances is that his impact was felt in every aspect of the game. He’s not just an offensive defenceman. On Saturday’s game in Penticton, the Oilers controlled 17 of the 26 shot attempts at even strength. Bear had five shots on goal in that game, and keyed five breakouts, three of which with full control of the puck. According to www.Prospect-Stats.com, Bear’s Thunderbirds controlled 11% more of the goals at five-on-five with him on the ice than on the bench. Almost every player Bear played with saw a noticeable bump in their five-on-five goals for percentage alongside him.
It’s easy to see, then, why the Oilers aren’t asking Bear to reinvent himself as he makes the transition to professional hockey, whether it’s with the Oilers or their farm team the Bakersfield Condors. All they’re asking for are a couple small tweaks. “[The Oilers] like the way I play,” Bear told Oilers Nation. “I move the puck well; I skate well. The couple of things they want me to work on was just how I move and developing quick foot work. They like the way I skate, they just want me to be able to play with smaller players and quicker guys in the NHL, and they want me to be able to close on them”.
There’s an obvious opening for Bear if he’s ready to make that leap. With Andrej Sekera sidelined by an ACL tear and Mark Fayne already earmarked for the AHL, that leaves the Oilers with only four defencemen cemented in their roles. That leaves two up for grabs, and Bear is aware that this is a unique opportunity for him to make some hay. “They’re still positive,” Bear said of his chances of making the opening night roster. “I’m not trying to get too high on myself or anything. I’m just going to go out there and play my best and do what I do, and it’s as simple as that. You can’t really change much up or adjust the way you play”.
All that’s left is for Bear to go out and prove it against NHL talent. There’s no denying; there might be something left for Bear to learn at the AHL level before he takes on top of the lineup competition. Then again, there’s just as good a chance that’s a redundancy at this stage. Only time will tell.