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For Oilers’ Ethan Bear, focus remains on winning after signing contract

EDMONTON — Why do you want Ethan Bear on your team? Well, there are a lot of reasons, actually.

Said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett: “He’s smart, has good skill and he competes. Those are three pretty good attributes.”

Then there’s this:

Asked about how his approach to training camp changes year over year — from a rookie with an outside chance of making the team, to having signed a two-year, $4 million contract and expecting top-four minutes — Bear had this to say.

“I want to win. That will be what I am focused on mostly — doing whatever I can to help the team win,” Bear said Tuesday, making the drive to Edmonton from Kelowna where he had been skating with some fellow pros. “We haven’t done anything yet. We haven’t won, or anything. We didn’t even make the playoffs last year, technically.

“Ya, I’ve got a year under my belt. But the biggest thing is winning now.”

Some guys sign a new deal and are ready to celebrate by pumping their own tires. Admittedly, it’s us media people asking them the leading questions, but you can learn a lot about a players’ priorities by watching where they swing the interview.

Coming out of his entry-level deal and with no real leverage, for Bear to more than double his average-annual value from just under $800,000 to $2 million is a nice raise — especially considering the salary landscape in the NHL these days. That he didn’t sign long-term is, again, simply a facet of the current economy.

But Bear wasn’t talking about future long-term deals, or about how a Cree kid who grew up in the Ochapowace nation just signed a life-changing deal worth $4 million.

What Bear is focused on is playing on a winner in Edmonton — full stop. He wasn’t even worried about getting the contract signed, so much.

“The only thing I was worried about was missing camp. I really want to be there, and I’m happy (the contract) is done now. Especially with this short season,” said the 23-year-old.

He still has that taste in his mouth from the qualifying round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. An Oilers team that was two points out of having a bye, that had home-ice in round one virtually locked up before the pause, got blown out in four games by the 12th place Blackhawks. It was a sour summer for the boys in orange.

“We’d done a lot of good work last year, and put ourselves in a great spot to make the playoffs. Then with the pause, getting beat out by Chicago in the qualifying round was very upsetting. I definitely still have that chip on my shoulder,” Bear said. “We need to show that we ARE a winning team. We’ve got too many good players to lose like that. We have a lot to prove. I want to make sure we have that winning mentality.”

His head coach loves Bear’s outlook on life.

“When Bearsy got the deal done Monday night,” Dave Tippett said on Tuesday, “I told him, ‘Come to camp with that same smile, that same fun attitude that says you’re enjoying being here. Put all the business stuff behind you and get back to where you were last year in camp.’

“That’s when he made our team. He came here full of life, he played with energy, and he played himself on to the team.”

When Adam Larsson went down with a busted ankle in the season opener, Bear went from a longshot who snuck on to the roster to a top-four defenceman who had to make up some minutes on the right side. Bear would go on to partner up with Darnell Nurse, and lead all rookie D-men in total ice time, even strength ice time, and average ice time per game.

He had five goals and 21 points, and finished 10 in voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the Year). He’ll likely be back on Nurse’s flank again when camp opens on Monday.

“We’ll probably look at that for sure, and with a short camp you’re going to try to get a much familiarity as you can early on,” Tippett said. “But we have to figure out where all the parts fit. We have Bear, Larsson, Tyson Barrie on the right side — and Bouch (Evan Bouchard) is going to be pushing. And on the left side you’ve got Klef (injured Oscar Klefbom) out, but you’ve got Nursey, and (Caleb) Jones, and (Kris) Russell, and (Slater) Koekkoek, and (William) Lagesson… There are lots of options there.

“We’ve got to see where things play out, but I guarantee, you’re going to need a lot more than your top-four defencemen this year. You’ll need eight or nine guys who can play, and that’s what we feel like we have.”

As for the contract, like the player himself, the deal is good and leaves room for much improvement down the road.

When Tampa signed right-handed defenceman Erik Cernak to a three-year deal with an AAV of $2.95 million just last week, it looked like the market for Bear could be a little rich for capped out Oilers GM Ken Holland. But shaving off a year and almost a million in AAV was the solution that brought everyone together.

When this short deal expires, Bear will have arbitration rights with a $2.4 million qualifying offer, and he’ll be two years out from unrestricted free agency.

By then, he hopes, he’ll be re-signing with a winner.

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