Don’t let the immense amount of first round draft picks fool you. The Edmonton Oilers have drafted terribly for the better part of the last 12 years. Until very recently, the team had struggled mightily to draft anyone of impact outside of the first round. To put this statement into context, since 2008 the most successful player drafted after the opening round to play over a 100 games WITH the Oilers is Jujhar Khaira..who was drafted 63rd overall in 2012 and currently has 52 career points. Behind him is Anton Lander, drafted 40th overall in 2009, with 35 career points. Both are decent players...but it is unacceptable for them to stand atop all the players the organization has drafted in rounds 2-7 for the past 12 years.
Luckily, it looks like that won’t be the case for too much longer. Despite the many hardships suffered during the Peter Chiarelli era, the one thing that actually improved was the team’s scouting and their ability to evaluate amateur talent. This can be seen during his first draft with the team in 2015, in which 4 of the 6 players taken are now NHL regulars.
The best bang for your buck pick that year, outside of Connor McDavid, was that of Ethan Bear. Selected 124th overall in the 5th round, there was plenty of reason to believe that he would be yet another bust that would fizzle out in a few years. The Oilers just didn’t have a lot of believers when it came to developing NHL talent. Luckily, things would finally start to change after this draft.
Bear returned to the WHL to play both the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons and quickly blossomed into one of the top defenders for the Seattle Thunderbirds. After putting up 38 points in his draft year, Bear exploded to an impressive 65 points in his draft+1 season, good enough for 5th among WHL defencemen. He would then top that total the following year, putting up 70 points during the 2016/17 season, which vaulted him up to 3rd among WHL defenders.
Those two impressive years after being drafted gave him the inside edge on a lot of prospect defenders heading into training camp on the eve of the 2017/18 season. He wouldn’t start the season in the AHL but he would eventually get an 18-game audition where he showed plenty of poise and showed some potential as a puck-moving defender.
The 2018/19 season was what really defined Bear as an underdog. Despite making the trip to Sweden as apart of Edmonton’s roster during the 2018 Global Series, Bear failed to play a single NHL game that year. To add, it seemed as though Caleb Jones and Evan Bouchard had leapfrogged him on the depth chart. He had a pretty decent year in the AHL, putting up 31 points and being a critical part of the team’s playoff run, but the clock was already starting to tick and another season without NHL games might’ve spelt the end of his tenure with the Oilers. Dramatic? I know, but lots of late round picks have been abandoned by team’s for far less. 2019/20 HAD to be big for Bear and, as we now know, it was.
Bear came into 2019’s training camp a man possessed. He was among Edmonton’s best defender in every game he played in preseason and he showed real progress in his ability to manage the puck in his own end. He beat the odds and reclaimed his place as one of Edmonton’s best young players. He made the team and helped the team fight through a, potentially catastrophic, injury to Adam Larsson to start the year. While he was putting up pretty good offensive numbers before the season was paused, 5 goals and 16 assists in 71 games, the majority of his value came in the defensive end.
At the young age of 22, Ethan Bear might be Edmonton’s smartest defender. His defensive awareness consistently impresses me as he is able to chart every player on the ice to make the best possible play with the puck. He is rarely ever caught in a position with the puck where he doesn’t make the smart play. When he does this he calms the play down and gets the action moving in the right direction. He has done this far more than his fellow Oilers teammates and he was a huge reason why the team was trending toward the playoffs.
There is just so much to like about Ethan Bear. Apart from having a totally badass name, he was a late round draft pick who had the cards stacked against him from the start. He had to overcome his low draft position and then he had to fight for his way on the team by outplaying players drafted WAY WAY above him. He is a gamer and I hope he is with the Edmonton Oilers for a long time.