Senators Should Target Pending RFA Ethan Bear

While there remains much to do with the forward group this offseason, the Ottawa Senators have a chance to quickly improve their blue line by signing a restricted free agent (RFA). This week, the Carolina Hurricanes have indicated that pending RFA Ethan Bear has been given permission to talk to other clubs ahead of the deadline. While he’s not a superstar, he would provide immediate support to a lagging defense core while prospects continue to develop.

Although it’s true that there are a number of quality prospects in the pipeline, the Senators would be wise to avoid rushing them into the fray and risk their development as players. A player like Bear would serve as a quality replacement for the loss of Michael Del Zotto or Victor Mete, assuming general manager Pierre Dorion sticks to his plan and doesn’t re-sign either of them. Beyond what he brings to the team immediately on the ice, the other key part is the current and future demand for right-shot defensemen. Even if he doesn’t factor into the Senators’ long-term plans, he provides a valuable bargaining chip for moves later on.

Who is Ethan Bear?

First drafted in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft at 124th overall by the Edmonton Oilers, Bear was a little slow to make his way to the NHL. He had some solid seasons with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Seattle Thunderbirds, averaging just under a point per game over two seasons. In the WHL Playoffs, he put up an astounding 48 points in 35 games. Then, after some time with the American Hockey League (AHL), he made his mark and managed to get consistently on the ice with the Oilers. However, after two playoff sweeps where he recorded zero points, he was shipped off to the Hurricanes.

Ethan Bear Carolina Hurricanes
Ethan Bear with the Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Bear is a smart, two-way defender, and while he doesn’t possess exceptionally high offensive skill, he does tend to make quality outlet passes. Playing with the Oilers, he was utilized frequently on the penalty kill, where he finished third on the team in penalty kill minutes for 2019-20, behind Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom. With the Hurricanes, he was deployed more at even strength and was not relied on for the penalty kill. With this change, he was able to flourish and have a relatively decent season for a lower pairing defenseman. While he did not crack the roster during the playoffs, this can easily be considered a case of the team having a strong defensive group and less of an indication of Bear’s skills.

Where Does Bear Fit on the Senators?

Admittedly, Bear doesn’t have the best scoring numbers. But truthfully, outside of Thomas Chabot, the Senators don’t have high-scoring defensive players. Jake Sanderson projects as a defenseman who would accumulate points, but he’s likely still two or three years away from finding his game in the NHL. Erik Brännström hasn’t yet lived up to expectations and is one player who could be on the chopping block this offseason. Should the front office decide to move on from him, Bear could easily slot in to cover his production while being more solid defensively. Brännström appears to have a higher offensive ceiling based on his style and underlying numbers, but he’s just not hitting the target yet. 

Related: Senators Offseason Projections: Erik Brännström

Should Bear find his way to the Senators, he could immediately jump in as a penalty-killing defenseman. If the team were to opt out of resigning Brännström, he could also slot into the second power-play unit as well. He’s truly an all-around player, even if he’s not elite at any one aspect of his game. While Sanderson is the high-tier prospect coming up, it would be damaging to throw Lassi Thomson and Jacob-Bernard Docker to the wolves immediately. Bear could fill the necessary spots as the roster’s defensive group transitions from its current iteration to the next level as the prospects come up.

Erik Brännström Ottawa Senators
Erik Brännström, Ottawa Senators development camp (Courtesy Ottawa Senators)

While he’s no superstar, Bear has proven himself to be capable of eating up minutes in the NHL. He is also a reliable second-pair guy, and offers a huge upgrade to almost any team’s third pair. As the Senators continue to rebuild their brand with fans, he has proven himself to be a big community guy and would be the perfect addition to their new wave of messaging. While the team needs to address adding firepower to their forwards, there are still questions surrounding the defense. Bear could be the answer for the interim.

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