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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Ethan Bear is playing like a top-four defenceman

Through 12 games, Ethan Bear looks every part of a top-four defenceman in the National Hockey League.

Bear’s rise isn’t unexpected. Bear was nearly a point-per-game defender in the WHL after being drafted 125th-overall in 2015. After that, he had two strong seasons in the minors and even an 18-game stint with the Oilers in 2017-18.

Bear didn’t play any NHL games in 2018-19. Caleb Jones got that opportunity and looked good playing 19:48 minutes a night. Bear scored 31 points in 52 AHL games with Bakersfield.

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It’s not surprising to see Bear playing NHL games this season. It is surprising how quickly and how good Bear is playing in 2019-20.

Bear is averaging 21:38 minutes a game. That’s the most for any rookie defenceman, ahead of Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes, Nashville’s Dante Fabbro and Colorado’s Cale Makar.

But anyone can play a bunch of minutes. Oilers fans have seen many defencemen caved in playing significant minutes. Playing well in those minutes is a different story. Bear looks more Jeff Petry than Justin Schultz. Joel Persson’s injury in preseason paved the way for Bear to make the team, but Bear’s since solidified his spot on the roster.

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Bear’s played 225 5v5 minutes, almost all of them with either Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom. Nurse-Bear have been a pairing since Adam Larsson got hurt.  Bear looks solid by most metrics. Nurse-Bear have been outscored 8-12 five-on-five, although three of those goals came against Florida last game. Their PDO, which combines on-ice save percentage and shooting percentage, indicates they’ve been a bit unlucky so far.

PuckIQ tracks how much players play against different tiers of opposition: Elite, Middle, and ‘Gritensity’. Bear and Nurse haven’t been sheltered much. According to PuckIQ, Bear, and Nurse, have seen the most time against elite opponents. Though, 40% of their TOI includes time with Connor McDavid.

The Oilers have long needed useful right-handed defencemen. Schultz and Mark Fayne were signed but couldn’t cut it in the roles the Oilers hoped they could play. Larsson was acquired by trading Taylor Hall, a clear overpayment, but Larsson is a defensive defencemen in a league that is moving away from those types of players. Kris Russell’s played major minutes on the right side but is better suited in a depth role on the left side.

Bear’s emergence might foreshadow a future wealth on the right side. Bear looks like a top-four defenceman. Evan Bouchard has the pedigree and skill to play there soon. Joel Persson looked competent before his injury. What was once a position of significant weakness is trending towards one of strength and depth.

The Oilers can learn a lot from Bear’s development and play this season. Peter Chiarelli overreacted and lost a major trade to acquire an adequate top-four defenceman. Now it’s not hard to see a defence core without Larsson as soon as 2021, if not sooner. Bear, Bouchard and Persson have the necessary puck skills defencemen to play in the league in 2019. Bear was a fifth-round draft pick. Persson was a free agent signing from Sweden. Bouchard was the only high draft pick out of them. Capable right-handed defencemen can be acquired without trading a future league MVP.

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The Oilers have long failed to develop players beyond the first round. Bear is doing his best to buck that trend but It’s still early. Players often don’t develop in a straight line. Bear might hit a slump or even end up back in Bakersfield. Last year, many thought Jones had passed Bear in the organization. This year, there’s a legitimate argument Bear’s been one of, if not the, best defenceman on the Oilers.