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FEATURE | Blueline building with Bear and Jones

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers

The best offence is a good defence.

This may be considered as the strategic offensive principle of war, but it also applies to sports, especially in the realm of hockey where blueliners, especially those with plentiful experience, are highly coveted and — in some cases — hard to acquire.

Over the course of the Oilers 2015-16 season, as injuries plagued a number of veteran players, the defensive lineup took a hard hit. It started when Oscar Klefbom sustained a lower body injury in December that forced him to miss the remainder of the season.

Then, one-by-one — like a domino affect — the blueline came tumbling down as Brandon Davidson (lower body), Eric Gryba (knee) and Adam Pardy (hand) joined the list.

The Oilers made adjustments as best they could with what appeared to be a beaten down defensive lineup, recalling players such as Jordan Oesterle from their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors — a great resource for the Oilers and even greater opportunity for players eager to make their NHL debuts.

Among the waves of conversation that have surrounded the Oilers and the so-called “unequivocal need” to address their blueline situation sooner rather than later, there resides two prospects — Seattle Thunderbirds right-shooting defenceman Ethan Bear and Portland Winterhawks left-shooting defenceman Caleb Jones — in the heart of the Oilers Orientation Camp that are working hard, anticipating the day when they’re considered ready to make their mark.

Each has already taken an important step towards doing so, having each recently signed a three-year entry-level contract (ELC).

“It feels really good,” said Bear, who signed his ELC on Saturday. “It’s huge for me and my family and I’m really happy I got to sign that and to get that out of the way, now I can just focus on hockey and my work this summer.”

Jones, who signed his ELC back in April, agreed.

“You put in a lot of hard work your whole life to get to this point and signing the ELC is kind of the start of, I guess, your NHL career really, and trying to make it to the NHL,” he said.

The two blueliners are, essentially, in the same boat, navigating the same system. They were drafted by the Oilers in 2015, just seven picks apart — Jones in the fourth round, 117th overall, Bear in the fifth round, 124th overall — roomed together at Orientation Camp last year, and played against one another in the Western Hockey League.

Oilers defensive prospect, Ethan Bear. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

Oilers Senior Director of Player Development, Rick Carriere, is pleased with the progress each prospect has made over their 2015-16 seasons.

“I think [Ethan Bear] and Caleb Jones really had good seasons this year,” he said.

“Ethan’s offensive game really evolved and he was able to contribute offensively but more than anything else I think he rounded out his game away from the puck too, is a lot better in the d-zone, checking down low, he had good corner battles, he was tough in front of the net, but his game’s all about the puck and transition, moving his feet and he did a really good job with that throughout the year and he was able to put up some offensive numbers. Caleb Jones, same thing, he kind of grew into more of a two-way game and they both benefitted.”

Bear, who is participating in his second camp with Jones, said knowing what to expect this time around has put him at ease.

“Knowing what I’m coming up against and knowing how much work you have to put into it, to learn and how much you’ve got to pay attention and put on detail…I know I’m expected to do that and it’s going to be another fun camp,” he said.

Though these so-called “frenemies” are at different stages in their experience in the WHL, with Bear having completed his third year with Seattle while Jones just experienced his first with Portland, it’s a subtle contrast to the level of skill each one has to offer.

Bear recorded 19 goals and 46 assists for 65 points in 69 games, as well as 22 points (8G, 14A) in 18 post-season games with the Thunderbirds. In November, Bear recorded his first career hat-trick to give Seattle a 5-1 victory over the Spokane Chiefs.

Jones tallied 10 goals and 45 assists for 55 points in 72 games, including two points in four playoff games with the Winterhawks. He had his first taste of the AHL in April after the Winterhawks were knocked out of the first round of their post-season run. He reported to Bakersfield a few days later, suiting up for three games.

Oilers defensive prospect, Caleb Jones. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

“It was great,” he said. “I thought I played pretty well up there, coming in. I was one of the younger players on the team, obviously, so I had to learn a lot from the veteran players but the game was definitely a lot faster, a lot bigger, stronger players, but I got adjusted pretty well I felt like, it was good.”

Born just 20 days apart, the 19-year-olds may have been later picks at the Draft, but they are certainly out to prove their worth.

“I’m working really hard and I want to make a name for myself,” said Bear. “Most importantly, I’m here to take part just like everybody else, so I don’t treat myself as any more special than the other guys. Just work hard and take it day-by-day.”

Carriere said he isn’t surprised. Just because a player is drafted in the first couple of rounds, doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed a job.

“It sometimes comes from within the player,” he said. “If they’re motivated to get better and have that growth mentality that they’re going to get better… they’re going to pass some guys for jobs.”

It’s easy for the WHL rivals to set their league differences aside, now dawning the same uniforms for the Oilers organization. Since their first meeting in 2015, they’ve stayed well connected over the course of the year, which also helps when your teams play one another 12 times throughout a season.

“We’re pretty good friends off the ice,” said Jones. “We’re starting to get really close, especially this camp. We like to hang out, have a good time together — we both like a lot of the same things. [Ethan]’s a great guy he’s a good player too, so it’s a little weird playing against him out there.”

“We’re actually pretty good buddies,” said Bear. “Friends off the ice, but on the ice we take the sport seriously and there’s not much joking around going on at the time… but after the game we’ll talk."

This season, the blueliners have made great gains in their personal development, generating scoring chances for teammates, capitalizing on a few unique opportunities of their own and, now, feel they’re in a position to help foster the growth of other players who have yet to sign their own names on the dotted line of an ELC.

“I think last year, both of us coming in, there were guys like Darnell Nurse and a few older guys that were signed and kind of established in the system and we kind of were behind them,” said Jones.

“This year [Ethan and I are] coming in and we’re the signed guys now and we’re trying to lead the way out there for a lot of the other defencemen and the younger guys that just got drafted and maybe some of the invites, so, we’ve definitely taken on a new role at Orientation Camp this year.”

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