Young defencemen presented fresh opportunities with Oilers

New York Islanders' Chris Wagner (21) and Edmonton Oilers' Ethan Bear (74) battle for the puck during third period NHL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 8, 2018. (Jason Franson/CP)

SAN DIEGO — What does Caleb Jones expect to come out of Edmonton Oilers training camp in September?

“I’ll be expecting to make the team,” said Seth’s little brother.

Meanwhile, Ethan Bear, the right shot defenceman with the offensive instincts that the Edmonton Oilers have been missing for most of a decade, has spent the season looking in the mirror.

“I had my fun last summer, and the summers before. It’s time to grow,” Bear said. “To realize how much hard work it takes to make it in the NHL.”

This is the funnel-down effect, when an organization gets turned on its head like the Oilers have these last few months. Every guy down here in the American Hockey League knows: There’s a new boss in town, and he’s got some issues they can help him with.

Ken Holland needs a couple of defencemen, especially ones that can move the puck. And he could dearly use a couple of D-man on Entry Level contracts, leaving him more cap space to shore up his forward ranks on the Unrestricted Free Agent market.

“Everyone here pays attention. It’s our jobs,” Bear said of the events up in Edmonton this past week. “We want to get to the NHL, and everyone sees that there’s opportunity. Everybody wants to be at the top, right?”

Jones came up to Edmonton for a stint last season, only to become the poster boy for what this organization has done to its prospects for so long. He started out playing 16, 17, 18 minutes, and held his own. Then injuries struck, and here was a 21-year-old call-up playing 22 or 23 minutes a night.

Predictably, Jones crashed and burned, making the definitive giveaway in a loss to Calgary that left him facing the media post-game, where he admitted, “that’s the difference between an NHL player and an American League player. Those plays don’t happen, at that juncture in a hockey game. I’ll learn from it, though.”

Jones would play one more game, the next night in another lopsided loss against Carolina. Two days later, the general manager would be fired, and the prospect was back in Bakersfield, dented, but not broken.

He vows he’ll play a lot more than 17 NHL games in the 2019-20 season.

“You come into every camp wanting to stick,” Jones said. “But having a little taste, a little success up there? I’m going to have a real hunger to make sure I’m making that opening night roster next year.”

OK — let’s take stock. Edmonton has Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Andrej Sekera, then Kris Russell and Matt Benning, that leaves a spot for one current Bakersfield defenceman. Swap one of those veterans for a winger — or buy out Sekera — and maybe you have room for two.

But along with Jones and Bear, Holland was watching a more defensive-minded William Lagesson while in San Diego this week. And he’s got Joel Persson coming over from the Swedish Elite League next season — on a one-way, $1-million deal.

Then you have Evan Bouchard and Dmitri Samorukov, the former finishing his season in the AHL while he latter carries his Guelph team through the OHL Final.

“The complexion of the D-corps here is made up of different ingredients,” begins Jay Woodcroft, who gets credit for fostering an excellent culture in Bakersfield, the likes of which the Oilers haven’t had in years. “Bear provides that big shot from the point, and I think his defending is under rated. Jones is a puck transporter. He finds the right time to jump in, and knows when not to jump in. His biggest improvement has been on the defensive side of things. He was a big minus player last year (minus-25). This year he was (plus-16).

“Lagesson is hard, heavy. He goes against the top check every single night and is having a career year offensively (8-19-27). He is an excellent hockey player. Bouchard has a big shot, and he’s learning at this level. Here, he’s playing in the second round of the AHL playoffs. This is some intense hockey.”

Ideally, Bear can make play NHL games next season, a place-holder so Bouchard can play a full year in the AHL. After that, who knows? What if both were right-shot Oilers defencemen with bombs from the point?

After showing up last September in less than top shape, Bear talks like a guy who has learned a lesson.

“I will approach this summer a lot more seriously, that’s for sure,” said Bear, who grew up in the Ochapowace Nation near Whitewood, Sask. “I’ve never really understood the meaning of (what it takes) to make the NHL. I’ve done things more through skill, but I never really understood the hard work it really takes. There is no off-season in the NHL. I never really understood that. I’d go home, take a week off… Just was never as smart and as serious as I needed to be.

“I’d still be in shape. But I could have been in better shape. That’s the biggest growth for me this year. Just learning to be a better pro,” said Bear, who smells the opportunity in Edmonton. “I’m going to spend my whole summer in Edmonton, and go 110 per cent every day. It’s hard to focus in the summer. You have your friends, you have your family, it’s time off. It’s easy to lose focus and enjoy life a little bit too much.”

Finally, a pipeline in Edmonton where four or five defencemen can battle for one or two spots.

The way the good organizations work.

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