Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones both game-changers on Oilers blue line

Gene Principe sits down with former Edmonton Oiler Patrick Maroon and discusses life at home during social isolation. He reminisces about his time in Edmonton, his Stanley Cup journey with the Blues and how he enjoys life with his new team in Tampa.

EDMONTON — As we do our mock votes on National Hockey League awards that will be handed out, well, someday, the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year was the easiest/hardest of them all.

For me it was a two-horse race between Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes and Colorado’s Cale Makar, where I leaned to Makar for (among other reasons) his work at even strength versus powerplay numbers. It was a razor-thin margin between the two, and while pouring over the stats, we also learned something about the season posted by Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear.

If we ever get to the point where Professional Hockey Writer Association voters fill out the real ballots for the 2019-20 NHL Awards, on a six-player Calder ballot full of defencemen like Makar, Hughes, John Marino and Adam Fox, forwards like Dominik Kubalik and Victor Olofsson, and goalies MacKenzie Blackwood and Elvis Merzlikins, Bear’s stats compare more favourably than we would have thought.

Bear’s emergence at training camp was a complete and total surprise. Most everyone — including Oilers coaches and management — had Caleb Jones ranked ahead of Bear on the depth chart. That the season ended with both taking a regular shift on the Oilers blue line is evidence of why Edmonton suddenly doesn’t look much like the Oilers team of recent seasons.

“Ethan Bear came up early and really made a big impact to the whole league, I think,” Oilers No. 1 defenceman Oscar Klefbom said in a Zoom interview last week. “I did not expect him to play that mature and be very solid for almost every game.”

Bear had a few substandard games, the same as any NHL player. But as a rookie his game was remarkably at the same high level on most nights, as he became the everyday partner of veteran Darnell Nurse.

“That’s something that I found really hard when I came up, to be very consistent,” Klefbom said. “And if you’re consistent, you earn your minutes. You play more, you feel better about yourself and can eventually play with bigger confidence and better poise. I’m just really impressed with how he came up and from the first minute, he played with a lot of poise and a lot of confidence and I’m really impressed and very happy we have him in the organization.”

So, where does Bear rank against the other rookie defencemen from the 2019-20 season?

For starters, he led them all with 21:58 of ice time per game. He also leads in games played at 71.

• Among rookie D-men, Bear finished fifth in points (21), with 19 of those coming at even strength. Bear and Jones each had one less even-strength goal (4) than Hughes (5).

• Among rookie D-men, Bear is fifth in the league at even strength points (19) and fifth in shorthanded time on ice per game (1:52).

• Bear led all rookie D-men in blocked shots with 106. (Hughes and Makar combined for 113).

It’s pretty clear that both Makar and Hughes are more dynamic, offensively gifted players. But the fact that Bear ranked with or ahead of them both in several defensive categories tells you that the Oilers’ 22-year-old could be a big piece of what’s happening in Edmonton for years to come.

Now, include Jones — another 22-year-old who installed himself in the Oilers’ Top 6 — and you’ve got two up and coming pieces on an Edmonton blue line that already includes Klefbom (26), Nurse (25) and Adam Larsson (27).

“Our young players really were important,” said GM Ken Holland, who took a team that most thought would miss the playoffs and had them at or near the top of the Pacific Division for the entire season. “You think of the job that Ethan Bear did this year, top-four minutes. He paired with Darnell Nurse basically from Day 1 of almost pre-season. Then the impact that (Kailer) Yamamoto had on our team coming up at Christmas time. And when Oscar Klefbom went down with the injury, one of our top two or three in terms of minutes and importance on the back end, Caleb Jones stepped in and played in the top four and we continued to find ways to win hockey games.”

For years, while Edmonton had some recognizable talent up front, the true issue lied on their backend, where they would have a couple of players and a handful of question marks. That is changing, and not coincidentally, so has Edmonton’s place in the standings.

Together, these two young defencemen are a game-changer. Particularly when you consider the Oilers pipeline, which includes Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov.

“Bear’s stepped in (with) a big role to play and knocked it out of the park,” raved Nurse. “You hear stories like that, guys like that who are so hungry coming into camp and then solidified a spot. He’s an everyday NHL defenseman who’s effective each and every night. You want to keep playing with guys like that, all of us.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.