Considering their current cap situation and the uncertainty around the league, the Oilers likely won’t have the luxury of spending big in unrestricted free agency. Another reason why their cap situation is tight for the upcoming offseason is that the team has a handful of important restricted free agents that need new contracts. Up front, they’ll need to take care of Andreas Athanasiou while on the blueline, Matt Benning and Ethan Bear both need new deals. Let’s start with the most important of the three: Ethan Bear.
One of the best stories of the 2019/20 season was the emergence of Bear. Heading into training camp, most though he had an outside shot of cracking the big club and even once he made the team, some were skeptical that he could be an everyday NHL defenseman.
Well, within a matter of weeks, Bear proved that not only was he capable of handling NHL minutes on a regular basis, but he could survive in a top-four role. For years, the Oilers have needed a right-handed, puck-moving defenseman and now they finally have it. The big question now is how should they handle his next contract?
It’s a very tricky situation because Bear is an RFA with only 89 career NHL games under his belt. At the same time, he’s coming off a breakout season which has driven up his value. In this sort of situation, a bridge deal would probably make the most sense, but, if the Oilers believe he will continue getting better with age, then they should be looking at a long-term deal. If they do this right, then they could end up with a real value contract in a few years, like they currently have with Oscar Klefbom.
A big part of this problem is that nobody knows what the salary cap will be set at next season. I looked into that problem in my last piece, which you can read here, but if the cap doesn’t go up and the Oilers can’t shed Kris Russell’s contract, then signing Bear to a four or five-year deal might be completely out of the question.
Let’s just say that they do feel like they have the money to give Bear a long-term extension, what could that look like? Well, there aren’t very many defensemen in the league that sign long-term deals this early in their careers, so finding a direct comparison can be tough.
In the last calendar year, there have been six RFA defensemen who have signed short-term deals (between one and three years) for between $2-$3.5 million. They are Travis Sanheim, Neil Pionk, Nikita Zadorov, Jake McCabe, Joel Edmunson, and Brandon Carlo. Now, it’s worth noting that most of those players had more experience than Bear but they all got at least $2.85 million per season. On a short-term deal, I think it’s fair to say that $2.85 million is likely Bear’s ceiling.
As for a long-term deal, it’s more difficult to find a comparable. The three most recent examples I could find are Jakob Chychrun, Noah Hanifin, and Colin Miller. All three of them signed their deals in 2018.
Chychrun signed a six-year contract with an AAV of $4.6 million a season after playing just over 120 games in the NHL. He hadn’t produced a lot of offense, but he was a recent first-round pick and the Coyotes took a bit of a gamble on him.
Hanifin got the biggest deal of the three, signing for six years with a cap hit of $4.95 million. By that point in his career though, he had played over 200 games in the league and was already a bonafide top-four defenseman. There wasn’t a lot of risk in signing him to a long-term deal.
Miller signed his deal after he had already racked up close to 200 games in the NHL. He was coming off a breakout season with the Vegas Golden Knights where he posted 41 points in 82 games. He got a four-year deal worth $3.875 million a season.
After looking at those comparables, I bet a long-term deal for Bear would probably fall somewhere right in the middle of the contracts handed out to Chychrun and Miller. Five years with an AAV of $4 million sounds about right to me.
This also really depends on what Bear and his camp want. He’s coming off a great season and while I don’t doubt that he wants to stay in Edmonton, he might want to gamble on himself a little bit and take a short-term deal. If the contract is for just two years, then I could see the cap hit being around $2.5 million. Just north of what Matt Benning got after his first stint in the league.
I think the organization would love to sign him to a long contract in the hopes that it quickly turns into a value contract as Oscar Kelfboms did. The big questions are: is Bear okay with locking into a long-term deal that will carry him through his prime? And can the Oilers afford to pay him north of $4 million next season?