Why Ethan Bear may be Edmonton’s most valuable defenceman
Trading our best right defenceman is a huge step back
Before the 2020-21 season started, Elliotte Friedman had reported that Oscar Klefbom would have shoulder surgery that would take him out of the lineup for all of 2020-21, with Ken Holland officially announcing this in late December.
With those announcements, almost everyone penciled in Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear as the top pairing heading into the season in January, as Holland didn’t find a LD replacement for Klefbom. Fast forward about a month and a half later, and there’s a bit of talk about an Ethan Bear trade and now some fans don’t want him on the top pairing anymore. How did this happen?
This article will go into how Ethan Bear is extremely valuable to the Oilers and should be a long term top 4 option.
Ethan Bear excelled in a tough role last year
Before 19-20, the only defenseman who were a lock to make the top 4 were Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson. There were multiple options for the 2nd RD spot; Matt Benning, the return of the dreaded pair Nurse - Russell, and the most likely option, Joel Persson from the SHL. One player most expected not to be in the top 4 was Ethan Bear. At the time, he had only played 18 GP in the NHL, all in 2018, where he mightily struggled. He stayed in Bakersfield in the AHL for the entirety of 18-19. Bear was just seen as an intriguing, young prospect at the time, with potential, but probably not ready yet for a top 4 role.
Then came training camp and the preseason. Bear impressed in the preseason, scoring 2 goals in the last preseason game.
Joel Persson, who was initially supposed to be paired with Klefbom, was out for opening night with an injury, so Bear took his place in the top 4. After Nurse’s partner Larsson broke his foot and Persson came back in Game 2, Persson was paired with Klefbom, Bear was paired with Nurse, and for the majority of the season, Nurse - Bear was a top 4 pair.
The chart above shows deployment of the 8 Oilers defenceman with the most time on ice last year. Alongside Nurse, Bear had extremely tough deployment last year, and put up good numbers. He put up 21 points in 71 games and finished 2nd on the team in 5v5 points for defenceman (behind Nurse in less time on ice), so he wasn’t the most productive defenceman in the world. But, there’s more to a player’s play than just point totals, especially for a defenceman. Forwards tend to have a higher impact on goals for than defenseman, and point totals don’t measure defence.
With Ethan Bear on the ice at 5v5, the Oilers’ goal differential, expected goal differential and possession numbers went up. So basically, the Oilers were a more successful team when Ethan Bear was on the ice compared to without. They scored goals at a higher rate with him. Furthermore:
This chart is courtesy EvolvingHockey, a great analytics website. I recommend subscribing to their Patreon, they do great work.
So to make it as simple as possible; blue = good, red = bad. The first three bars are offence, last 2 bars are defence. Bear was a positive in every category except xGA (expected goals against) in which he was a slight negative. Bear’s partner Nurse was a positive in offence, but negative in both defensive categories. So while they were both pretty close offensively, Bear had the edge on the other end of the ice, and finished the year with better overall results.
To continue on this, EvolvingHockey has other models; GAR (goals above replacement) and xGAR (expected goals above replacement, xGAR is better for defenceman). Just like what they do with RAPM (the charts posted above), these models use the on ice stats of each player and isolate them for factors such as teammates, quality of competition, etc, using ridge regression. It basically provides the isolated on ice value a player provides offensively and defensively.
xGAR placed Bear 65th in the league among defenceman and 2nd on the Oilers for defenceman. He was only behind Caleb Jones, who did great in a sheltered 3rd pairing role. Bear’s xGAR is brought down a bit by his lackluster special teams play, but at even strength, you can’t ask a lot more from a defenceman who was never projected to be in the top 4 in the first place. He finished 53rd in the league in even strength xGAR for defenceman, ahead of players such as Ivan Provorov, Colton Parayko, and Mikhail Sergachev.
Bear was also a fairly strong player at exiting the zone with the puck and good at denying zone entries. Snippets of private NHL models like SportLogIQ also suggested that Bear was an excellent outlet passer, perhaps the best on our team.
So to sum it up, Ethan Bear is a 23 year old defenceman with good puck moving and outlet passing skills, solid underlying on-ice numbers, can play against the best of the best on a consistent basis, and is a decent 5v5 producer. Pretty good, right?
Contrary to what some may say, Bear has also been great in 2021
Many fans have said that Bear has struggled in 2021, while pointing out to the game where he got healthy scratched. Many also say that Nurse - Barrie has been a better pairing. This is not the case.
Nurse - Bear was the top pairing for the first few games, but after Bear took a puck to the head on January 30, he’s been out ever since (he suffered a setback). Barrie has taken Bear’s role on the top pairing. Even though Bear is coming close to returning, it looks like that pairing could still stick together. I disagree.
Hockey is more than just point totals. Sure, Tyson Barrie is putting up a good amount of points, but some of them come on a power play that was always good without him (and is worse than last year), and again, point totals don’t measure defensive play.
Barrie has always been a very strong puckmover throughout his career and it’s continued in Edmonton. I’m happy to see more offence from our blue line, but where he lacks is in his defensive zone. The Oilers allow goals and scoring chances at a much more significant rate when Barrie is on the ice, and both McDavid and Draisaitl’s on-ice goals allowed/60 go up when Barrie is on the ice with them. Offence isn’t an issue for the Oilers, the team with the highest 5v5 Goals For/60 in the league; it’s defence (6th highest in the NHL in goals allowed/60).
Nurse - Barrie is doing great at entering the offensive zone and making fancy passes and plays, but the problem is that when they’re on the ice, the Oilers are outshot. They’re leaking high danger chances, and they actually spend more time in the defensive zone than the offensive zone. Sure, the Oilers are winning right now, but this isn’t good for long term success, as Mike Smith’s .940 SV% isn’t sustainable. Our current success is more attributed to our bottom 6 starting to improve, our goaltending, and Connor McDavid taking a huge step at both ends of the ice.
Again, these charts aren’t the be all and end all, but they can show a decent idea of a player. Their GF (goals for) is similar, but Barrie still spends lots of time in the defensive zone. You can get as many points as you want, but it’s problematic if you give up more than you score. I’m not necessarily saying Nurse - Barrie is a flat out liability, the Oilers still outscore the opposition with them on the ice, but it isn’t as effective as Nurse - Bear in my humble opinion. Nurse - Barrie is also riding an incredibly high on ice shooting percentage (they have a 14.15% oiSH%, and the average oiSH% is around ~8%), so it won’t sustain over a large period of time.
Similar to last year, the Oilers are a better team with Ethan Bear on the ice. Many point out that he’s struggled because he was scratched, but I don’t think that’s really the case. Dave Tippett scratching him was largely based on one mistake he made on a goal against in the third game of the season and he seemed to want to hold Bear accountable for that, which still confuses me. Ethan Bear got scratched before Kyle Turris. Let that sink in. It almost seems like Tippett only holds younger players accountable, as we’ve also seen with Dominik Kahun and Caleb Jones. (how many mistakes have Larsson, Barrie and Russell made on goals against?)
Anyways, Bear was immediately put back with Nurse on the top pairing, played a similar amount of TOI as Nurse, and for the 2nd straight season, Bear led all Oilers defencemen in QOC% (Quality of Competition, via @TopDownHockey), so it definitely seems like Tippett still has lots of faith in him.
There really isn’t much evidence at all to suggest he’s struggled, and you can even maybe make the argument that he’s done better than last year in the few games he’s played so far. When he comes back, he should be on the Oilers top pair if the Oilers want long term success, because it’s going to be ugly when Nurse - Barrie’s on ice shooting percentage most likely regresses.
Ethan Bear has had better results than Darnell Nurse
This is courtesy EvolvingHockey, and again, I recommend subscribing to their great work.
Like said before, Ethan Bear had better all around results than Darnell Nurse last year. Bear had more non-empty net goals than Nurse last year, and Nurse had just two more primary 5v5 points than Bear while playing more minutes, so their production numbers weren’t *that* far off. Their underlying offensive numbers were still pretty close, but where Bear takes the big advantage is defence.
Bear was better at suppressing shots and scoring chances against than Nurse, and while both weren’t very good on special teams, Bear was the better penalty killer. Additionally, via Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine), Nurse was worse at denying entries into the defensive zone as well, so Bear was a better defensive player than Nurse.
However, you *can* say Darnell Nurse has been better this year, although you should be wary about his on ice shooting percentage being about 4% higher than last season and his individual shooting percentage being about 10% higher than last year. Chances are, his production will regress, because a ~12% shooting percentage is usually not sustainable for a defenceman. For the 2nd straight year, Bear has also been better defensively; he’s been better at suppressing shots and chances against.
But at the very least, I think it’s safe to say that Ethan Bear was the Oilers’ best top 4 defenceman in 19-20.
There hasn’t been too much talk about an Ethan Bear trade, but I’ve seen a bit of talk about trading a young RD, and it’s surprising that there’s even small rumours about it. Going forward, the RD core of the Oilers should be Bouchard - Bear.
I’m OK with signing Larsson next year as a 3RD if he’s cheap, and I’m against signing Barrie. There were rumours of him wanting $7M+ before he went to Toronto, and with the amount of points he’s getting right now, he’s going to ask for a lot of money. The cap space next year should be used to sign Nugent-Hopkins, Yamamoto and improve goaltending, not to improve the position we already have lots of talent in.
The Oilers have made some very questionable moves in the past. Trading good players is not something that’s uncommon for this team, so I have a bit of fear that Edmonton will be fooled by Barrie’s hefty point totals, sign him to a long and pricey extension, and trade Bear.
I hope not, because Ethan Bear is our best right defenceman right now and has been this season. Letting him go would be another bad move on a list full of bad decisions by this team.
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