Edmonton Oilers: Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones are in sophomore slumps

Edmonton Oilers, Ethan Bear (Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)
Edmonton Oilers, Ethan Bear (Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports) /

Last year was a bit of a banner year for the Edmonton Oilers D corps.  We saw Ethan Bear come out of nowhere to win a spot in camp, after a promising callup 3 seasons ago, followed by a season in Bakersfield in which he put up 6 goals and 31 points in 52 games.  He was also a +14 that season and followed that up by putting up 2 goals and 4 points in 8 playoff games for the Condors.

He surprisingly earned a spot in camp, and quickly became a mainstay in the D corps, moving up to the top pairing in short order with Oscar Klefbom or Darnell Nurse.  This gave a great shot in the arm to the depth at right D for the Oilers.  He finished his 1st full season in the NHL with 5-16-21 and a -4 in a covid-shortened 71 game season, phenomenal numbers for a rookie.  IIRC he even garnered some Calder Trophy votes.  He didn’t win, but he garnered some votes.

Jones took a bit of a different journey to the Oilers.  He was a callup in 2019-20 to sub in for the injured Kris Russell, after starting that season in Bakersfield and putting up 3 goals and 11 points in his first 14 games.  They were expecting him to go back down, but he never did.  He and Russell split the roster spot the rest of the season, and he ended up producing the same amount of offence as Russell but in 12 fewer games, and with a -1 to boot.

What made this even more impressive is both of these players were drafted in 2015 in the later rounds, Jones in the 4th round and Bear in the 5th round.  The Oilers had never had that kind of luck in any draft since the early 80s – having drafted Connor Mcdavid with the #1 overall pick that year.

It was expected Bear would pick up where he left off, while Jones would take the left side of the 3rd pairing on a full-time basis.  Neither of those things materialized, though, as Bear got injured and is only now starting to look like his old self again.

This would’ve been a much bigger story if it weren’t for the fact that Tyson Barrie has been playing lights-out with a career year, so we didn’t really notice Bear’s struggles.  After all, why question it when the team is still winning and your substitute is putting up points anyway?  1 good thing about Bear is he’s better defensively than last year, +4 at the time of this writing as opposed to -4 last year.

Jones, meanwhile, has been the same part-time NHLer he was last year, often looking rather forgettable next to guys like Russell or Slater Koekkoek.  His playing time will only decrease even more once newcomer Dmitry Kulikov is finished his quarantine next week.  After putting up 4-5-9 in 43 games last year, Jones has put up 0-3-3 in 25 games.  His +/- has also dipped to a -4.

Bear only has 1-5-6 in 33 games this season and struggled with injury partway through the season, and it’s taken him a while to get back to his old self.  Jones has just struggled.  Both players played in the playoffs for us last year and neither one produced any offence, however, to be fair – 1)  It was their first trip to the playoffs and both players are still at the beginning of their careers and 2)  Neither did most of the rest of the team either.

This year both players have looked like shadows of who they were last year.  While Bear has started to look more like his old self the last couple of games, even playing on the top pairing with Darnell Nurse last game vs. the Habs, Jones has slumped all season.  Does this mean that both players’ time in the NHL is over?  No.  Does this mean that both players’ time on the Oilers is over?  Possibly, but probably not.

Puck-moving defencemen don’t grow on trees, and Bear only has 122 NHL games to his name while Jones only has 85.  Both players are still only 23, which means we need to see them have more experience before writing them off as busts.  23 is still pretty young to be playing the most difficult position in the NHL to master.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that going forward Bear will either be back to his old form playing with either Darnell Nurse or Dmitry Kulikov on the other side if Barrie’s cooling-off period continues.  Both players have contracts that expire at the end of the next season, so the concern now is not the expiration of contracts.  The concern now rests around 1 thing:

The Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft

The Oilers were lucky when Vegas came on the scene in that most of their core was in their ELCs or hadn’t played enough games to qualify, so there was no danger of them losing Connor McDavid to Vegas, for example.  They were a pretty lousy team prior to the 2017-18 season, so the pickings were slim.  There’s a reason Vegas picked Griffin Reinhart from the Oilers in the last draft because there wasn’t much to pick from on the main roster.

The Oilers won’t be so lucky this time around, especially when it comes to their D corps, where they will be most susceptible to having an impact player taken by Seattle.  Darnell Nurse will be protected, that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point.  But after that, things get a little dicey.  Will Oscar Klefbom need to be protected or not?

Depending on his health he might need a spot.  If Tyson Barrie or Adam Larsson are re-signed prior to the expansion draft, they’ll need at least 1 of those 2 protected for sure.  Guys like William Laggeson won’t need to be protected, but in the context of this blog, the Oilers will also have to make decisions on whether or not to protect both Bear and Jones.

After all, Bear has played over 100 games the past 2 seasons, and he’s under contract for next year so he qualifies all day long.  Jones is also under contract for next year and played 43 games last year while only being 2 games away from meeting the 70 game criteria over the past 2 seasons.

So there’s a consideration for both guys, and it’s very likely only 1 can be protected, at most.  Unless They decide to risk waiting until later to sign Larsson and Barrie or go with the 8 skaters protection scheme which would fit both under the protection umbrella.

Or Holland can do what other teams did – make a deal with Seattle.  He can trade a pick to them to make sure neither guy is taken, or do what other teams did and dangle one of them in trade to Seattle in exchange for them taking one of James Neal, Zack Kassian, or Mikko Koskinen – the 3 bad contracts on the roster right now – off our hands in the expansion draft.  Or he can trade a pick to Seattle to make sure 1 of the 3 aforementioned players ARE taken by Seattle in the expansion draft, making the entire protection scheme less important.

Then there’s the fact that the Oilers have to keep an eye on the future and find roster spots and ice time for Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg, who will both be NHL regulars in the near future, maybe as soon as next season.

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All we know at this point is Bear and Jones are probably the 2 most attractive targets on the roster to the Kraken, because what NHL team doesn’t like young, cheap puck-moving D?  They all do.  That will include Seattle.  The Seattle expansion draft will probably be Ken Holland’s biggest test since becoming GM in 2019.  How will he handle it?  Only time will tell.