NHL Trade and Free Agency Tracker: Ethan Bear could be a steal for a new team

News broke last night that Carolina defenseman Ethan Bear could be moving on as he reaches restricted free agency.

Bear, who celebrates a 25th birthday this summer, has already been in the NHL for three full seasons and parts of a fourth. In some ways his career path is similar to Justin Schultz: a talented young right-handed defenseman who got way too heavy of a workload from Edmonton (Bear averaged almost 22 minutes per game in his first NHL season of 2019-20) that needed to re-find his footing after getting thrown in too deep at first.

For Bear, that opportunity came this past season with Carolina. He started off the year well, but after a bout with COVID and an injury, his season slumped away and he was a scratch for all of the Hurricanes’ playoff run. However, there still are some indications he has the skills and ability to be a contributing NHL player.

The Evolving Hockey contract projection for Bear is two years and a $2.48 million cap hit.

If that is the case, many teams should be interested in what Bear could bring to the table, and the Penguins should be among them. With the Kris Letang contract negotiation turning into the Kris Letang contract impasse with every passing day, Pittsburgh’s right handed depth chart of defensemen is not looking so good. John Marino, Ethan Bear, Chad Ruhwedel down the right side might not be the best defense in the world, but it sure looks better than the alternative at this point.

Further, if Letang is re-signed, it would give the Pens options to add Bear. Could Marino be flipped at that point (possibly to Vancouver, who is known to be sweet on him)? Or would the Pens be happy to have a powerful right side of Letang, Marino, Bear? Those would be good options to have and decisions to make.

The tricky part of the situation would be dealing with Carolina to get Bear out of there. They “still want to sign him” according to reports, even if he was also on the outside looking in for the playoffs, and the team already has three important defenders locked up (Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei) and presumably will need to devote some money to re-signing Tony DeAngelo as well. Roster-wise, Carolina can get along without Bear, but will they want to deal with a division rival (and potential playoff foe) in Pittsburgh?

Other than Jordan Staal in 2012 (who wanted to play with his brother), Jussi Jokinen in 2013 (who was waived days earlier by Carolina and they needed to clear his salary) and a minor deal involving Greg McKegg in 2018, the Pens and Canes have not made trades in the last decade. Bear will likely draw interest from a variety of teams, and a Western destination might be preferable for Carolina.

Time is ticking and Bear has the right to file for arbitration next month. On July 13th, when free agency starts, Pittsburgh could avoid a trade with Carolina and just sign Bear out-right as a restricted free agent, but this path would create more hurdles.

First, it’s never a good business practice in the ego-driven world of how NHL general managers operate to sign another team’s free agent. It creates bad feelings and could lead to retaliation, see: the Sebastien Aho and Jesper Kotkaniemi fiasco between Carolina and Montreal.

It feels silly to accomplish the same thing (move a player) for virtually the identical cost, but that is the way they do business. Even Brian Burke back with Toronto — he didn’t sign Phil Kessel (Boston RFA at the time), Burke traded the exact RFA compensation to Boston for Kessel and then signed Kessel. It’s semantics, but it’s how the league works.

The second major hurdle for an RFA signing is the RFA compensation. Pittsburgh doen’t have their 2023 third round draft pick (it was traded as part of the move to acquire Jeff Carter last year), which complicates just what they are able to offer. The Pens do have their second rounder and could submit a contract to Bear with a cap hit between $2.1 and $4.2 million, per this look from CapFriendly.

The issue there is that almost all offer sheets are matched. This century only 10 offer sheets have been signed, and eight of them have been matched by their team. The only two that weren’t (Dustin Penner to Edmonton and Kotkaniemi to Carolina) were seen as drastic salary overpayments, which would likely not be the situation for Bear this summer.

Should the Penguins hypothetically sign Bear in the range of a one or two year deal for $2.5 million, give or take a little, then they have solved Carolina’s problem of setting a contract amount for Bear. Then it would be up to them to decide on keeping Bear at that price, or accepting a 2023 second round pick. Carolina still needs third pair defensemen for next season, and as of now they have the cap space to match such a deal, if they want to do it.

Which means, for best results of actually getting the player, the proper way to accomplish that is via a trade. Ironically, based on the compensation chart, a second round pick is still the reasonable cost and value, though that price could change if another team places a lot of belief in Bear’s metrics and believes he could thrive on their team to drive up the cost.

The mechanics of getting Bear to Pittsburgh between RFA and the inter-divisional rivalry factor may prove to be, well…a bear. (Sorry, couldn’t help it).

But it’s not every day that a still young and capable right-handed defender becomes readily available, and for a fairly reasonable acquisition and salary cap cost. That alone should bring interest from many teams, and that should include the Penguins as well.

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