Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

A way too early look at Ethan Bear’s next contract

When talking about the Oilers free agents this summer, the spotlight is on Zack Kassian, who will be looking for a payday after thriving on the top line, and Darnell Nurse, who needs a long-term contract. But one name that we might want to start talking about is Ethan Bear.

I know, it sounds absurd. Bear is in his first full season in the league. Why are we talking about his contract? Well, this summer marks the end of Bear’s entry-level contract, and while signing him to a short-term bridge contract would be the standard practice in this situation, there are some examples from the past couple of years of good young defencemen getting long-term deals with just over 100 games of NHL experience.

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  • Markus Nutivaara: A seventh-round steal by the Blue Jackets in the 2015 draft, Nutivaara spent one year in Finland after being drafted before breaking into the NHL in the 2016-17 season. After just 126 games over two seasons, the Blue Jackets liked what they saw from Nutivaara, and gave him a four-year deal worth $2,700,000 annually.
  • Jakob Chychrun: After being selected lower than expected in the 2016 draft, Chychrun immediately broke into the league as an 18-year-old. Though he dealt with injuries in his first two seasons, Chychrun quickly established himself as a top-four defenceman. One month into the 2018-19 season, with 118 games under his belt, the Coyotes gave Chychrun a six-year deal worth $4,600,000 annually.
  • Samuel Girard: One of the key players who came back to Colorado in the Matt Duchene deal, Girard broke into the league with the Avs as a 19-year-old just one year after being taken in the second round of the 2016 draft. After 150 games played, the Avs locked up Girard to a seven-year deal worth $5,000,000 annually.

I think Nutivaara is the best comparison for Bear here. Both players are diamonds in the rough who were found in later rounds, and Nutivaara was signed when he was 23 years old, which is the same age Bear will be this summer. While Chychrun and Girard are examples of defencemen who got long-term deals with just over 100 games of NHL experience, they also had higher draft pedigree attached to their name. It’s more of a standard to see higher picks get long-term deals quickly than players drafted in later rounds, which is what makes the Nutivaara case interesting.

Bear and Nutivaara were actually drafted in the same year. While Bear was an 18-year-old selected from the WHL, Nutivaara at the age of 21 was the oldest player taken in the draft. He spent his aforementioned draft-plus-one year in Finland and then translated right to the NHL without any AHL time as a 22-year-old.

That season, Nutivaara played a depth role on a strong Blue Jackets team. Columbus’ top-four was made up of Seth Jones, David Savard, Jack Johnson, and Zach Werenski, while Nutivaara played on the bottom pairing alongside a revolving door of the oft-injured Ryan Murray and depth veterans like Kyle Quincey and Dalton Prout. In his sophomore year, Nutivaara took on a bigger role, playing 16:02 per game while putting up 23 points over 61 games.

That season was enough to warrant the Blue Jackets giving Nutivaara his four-year deal after the expiration of his two-year entry-level deal. Though there was a bit of a risk attached, now they have a quality defenceman signed for a very reasonable $2,700,000 cap hit for two more seasons.

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Sep 28, 2019; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Sam Bennett (93) and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear (74) fight for position in front of Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

That brings us to Bear. While he’s a late-round gem looking for a new RFA deal at the age of 22 like Nutivaara was, the two had a different introduction to the NHL. Bear spent two years in junior after being drafted and rose his prospect stock after winning WHL Defenceman of the Year in 2016-17.

Towards the end of his first professional season in the AHL, he was called up for 18 games with the Oilers largely because the team’s blueline was completely decrepit. Bear, who earned a cup of coffee due to his strong AHL play, was thrown right into the deep end, logging over 18 minutes a night due to injuries to various defencemen.

Despite faring pretty well in his 18-game stint in 2018, Bear didn’t play a single game with the Oilers in 2018-19. Injuries derailed a good chunk of his season, as he played in just 52 games for the Condors during the regular season. This fall, Bear came to training camp in the best shape of his life and capitalized on an injury to Adam Larsson to grab a top-four opportunity that he hasn’t relinquished.

Through 26 games this season, Bear has been a revelation. Just a couple of months ago, he was viewed as a prospect who might get a look due to an injury, and now, he’s become a key part of the Oilers’ incredible start. Bear is logging 21:06 per game, he leads the team’s defencemen in expected goals for percentage, and he has eight points despite not getting much power-play time. His poise and ability to move the puck effectively make him the top-four right-handed defenceman the Oilers have craved since Jeff Petry was traded.

Barring injury, Bear will be at 100 career NHL games played at the end of the 2019-20 season. While he doesn’t have the same draft pedigree of other inexperienced young defencemen who get long-term deals quickly like Girard or Chychrun, he’s playing at a level even beyond what those two did before they got signed. The Blue Jackets took a leap of faith with their late-round diamond in the rough and it’s worked out nicely for them.

One of the best things Peter Chiarelli did as general manager of the Oilers was sign Oscar Klefbom to a seven-year deal worth $4,167,000 after playing just 77 NHL games. Now the team’s top defenceman is locked up to a ridiculously team-friendly deal. In the case of Darnell Nurse, Chiarelli opted to take the bridge deal route, and it’ll end up costing the team more to get him signed long-term because of it.

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I’m not saying Holland should go out and sign Ethan Bear to a seven-year deal this weekend. As great as he’s been, there’s a lot of hockey to be played this year and he’s still got a lot to prove. But with each passing game, Bear is establishing himself as a key part of the team’s future. If there’s a chance to get him locked up at a value deal this summer, it might be the right play.