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What Ethan Bear Brings to Washington

Mar 21, 2023; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ethan Bear (74) skates against the Vegas Golden Knights in the third period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

After a couple of weeks of speculation, the Washington Capitals are expected to finalize a two-year deal any day now with 26-year-old, right-shot defensemen Ethan Bear, worth a reported $2.0625M/year.

This is just another addition to the long list of shrewd, smart decisions by Brian MacLellan and the front office. So what does Bear bring to the Capitals, where does he fit, and how will it affect the Caps going forward?

First thing is to dig into what kind of player Bear is. If there’s a player comparable for him, it’s probably Caps’ legend Dmitry Orlov – perhaps not in terms of talent level, but they do have a similar playing style. They both are on the smallish side (5’11”), but they play tough, are incredibly cerebral and reliable, make smart passes, win a lot of board battles, and also have the ability to jump up in the play to add some offense with their passing and shooting ability. Overall, they are strong two-way defensemen and do just about everything good to great.

Let’s take a look at the underlying numbers Bear has put up in his career. The stats below are 5v5 adjusted and relative to his teammates:

SeasonAgeTeamGPTOI/GPCF% RelxG% RelSCF% RelHDCF% RelOff. Zone Faceoff %
Stats provided by NaturalStatTrack

As you can see, outside of his rookie season at age 20, when he probably shouldn’t have been playing in the NHL (as evidenced by the fact that he did not play in the NHL the following season), he has had positive numbers in all the important stats across the board. Every single season he was better than his team’s average, either slightly or by a lot. That’s a good predictor of future success.

Let’s dig a bit deeper using HockeyViz player cards.

Off the bat, you can see Bear’s defensive impact is really strong. He’s about league-average for offensive impacts, but there’s still a good chunk of red in front of the opponents net that maybe predicts there’s a bit more there to give. His impact on the penalty kill is surprisingly poor but special teams differ so much from team to team, he could turn those numbers around with the Caps.

His one season in Carolina does seem to be something of an outlier, where his defensive impact actually got worse, but his offensive impact got better. Outside of that, though, Bear’s defensive impacts have been really strong every year, while his offense has been good, not great, and that’s perfectly fine. The Caps don’t need him to be an offensive dynamo.

Some of the most important data from above is the ice time he received. He’s played mostly second-pair minutes throughout his career – again, with the exception of his year with the Hurricanes, where he dipped into third-pairing minutes (which might explain why he wasn’t as dominant when he did get more ice time). This is a good sign, because his positive underlying numbers aren’t just because he was playing against lesser opponents, even if he started in the offensive zone more than the defensive zone.

Speaking of playing against tougher opponents, let’s take a closer look at how Ethan Bear did against “elite” competition, meaning top six players. Below you’ll see the total time he spent against elite players, something called Dangerous Fenwick relative to his teammates (DFF%RC), which is basically high-danger chances, and his offensive starts against those players:

SeasonAgeTeamGPTOIDFF%RCOff. Zone Faceoff %
Data provided by PuckIQ

Again, his first season was rough, but expected. After that, though, he put up some solid numbers against really tough opponents. The second EDM season and the Carolina season were maybe a little less impressive but still positive in the danger chances, and he had two really strong years against top-tier opponents, all while starting in the defensive zone more than the offensive zone. The best news is that he was stellar last season, so the hope is he keeps building off of that play.

The big question is, where does Ethan fit? With John Carlson, Nick Jensen, and Trevor van Riemsdyk all signed for $3M or more, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room on the right side, although TvR has played on the left side many times for the Caps, so the answer there is that he probably slides over. But does Bear go into the second pair with Rasmus Sandin or the third pair with TvR?

If I had to take a guess at what the Caps are looking for in this signing, it is to get more offense from the backend, specifically from Sandin. The Sandin-TvR pairing has been really strong for the Caps this season on the defensive end, but their offensive impacts in the offensive zone are underwhelming (which is fine). Sandin has some big offensive potential that’s being hindered by playing with a purely defensive player in TvR. Yes, Bear’s strength is on the defensive end as well, but his skating and offensive awareness is much stronger than TvR’s – which is no shade on TvR, just that Bear may be better suited to unlock Sandin’s offensive capabilities.

There are certainly concerns about Bear and his offseason shoulder surgery – heck, it’s the reason the Caps are able to sign him in December to a cheap deal. If he was healthy, he probably would have signed somewhere long before now, and for more money/term. But Bear is neither a high goal-scorer nor a hitting machine (though he isn’t afraid to lay the body), so his shoulder really shouldn’t be a problem going forward unless he botched it to the point he can’t even complete passes…but no way the Caps make the signing if they thought that would be the case.

Anyway you cut it, it looks like the Caps got their hands on a young second-pairing defensemen who has good-to-great impacts at both ends of the ice. It’s a pretty low-risk but potentially very high-reward signing. It gets them younger, faster, and all around better – and if he works out, the Caps will have a very strong defensive core. Martin Fehervary/John Carlson is already proving to be strong up front; Bear can slide in next to Sandin and potentially help him get a little more offense going, and then you round out the defense with TvR/Nick Jensen as your bottom pairing, which is not too shabby.

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