By the time Ethan Bear joined the Vancouver Canucks after a late-October trade, the Canucks season was already in shambles.
Bear wasn’t there for the start of training camp when the Canucks were full of hope and optimism. He joined after the Canucks had already gotten off to a seven-game losing streak to start the season, coughing up a multiplicity of multi-goal leads in the process. The team was in disarray and it caught Bear completely off-guard.
“When I first got here, it was honestly kind of shocking to see where the team was at,” said Bear in an expansive interview with Dan Riccio and Satiar Shah on Sportsnet 650.
"Oh my god. We’ve got to just survive."
What made it all the more shocking for Bear was the juxtaposition between the Canucks and his previous team, the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have known that if I didn’t play in Carolina, to be honest,” he said. “I could’ve played for the Anaheim Ducks, probably came here and wouldn’t have noticed a thing, but when you play for such a structured team that is so detail-oriented — there’s a plan on every single faceoff, there’s a plan on every single play when you’re on the ice — when you come from that and come to where we were at this year, it was just, like, ‘Oh my god. We’ve got to just survive.’”
The Hurricanes are one of the most structured teams in the entire NHL. That’s been to both their benefit and detriment. They’re one of the best defensive teams in the league thanks to an aggressive north-south transition game that keeps the puck out of their own end as much as possible in combination their stifling system that leaves their opponents no room to work with with the puck is in the defensive zone.
The Hurricanes are also middle-of-the-pack offensively and don’t have a single player in the top-50 in NHL scoring despite a handful of elite offensive talents on their roster. There’s a trade-off in their strictly structured game but it’s one the Hurricanes are understandably happy to make given they finished first in their division for a fourth-straight season.
"It always felt like everyone was a little lost."
Compared to the structure Bear was used to in Carolina, it’s no wonder that the freewheeling — and freefalling — Canucks felt like being thrown into the deep end of a pool before you’ve learned how to swim.
“You’re just making hockey reads instead of playing a structure and it kind of felt like an every-man-for-himself kind of thing,” said Bear. “You could sense it. We didn’t really have that team camaraderie, that togetherness. It always felt like everyone was a little lost.”
For players who consistently make good reads on the ice, Bruce Boudreau’s more freeform approach to the game might work just fine. It’s always worth noting that Boudreau has a 617-342-128 record as a head coach, second in winning percentage behind only the great Scotty Bowman among those who have coached 1000 NHL games.
But Bear was blunt about where he felt the blame belonged.
“That starts with coaching,” said Bear. “When you build that winning culture and that winning pedigree, it starts with coaching, yes. Get everybody on the same ship, but then it stems from the players: doing every single thing right, every single day, no matter how taxing, no matter how boring it seems, or how cliche or repetitive it gets.
“That’s how you build a championship and that culture and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in Carolina and this last quarter of the year was a step in that direction and that’s what really excites me.”
"Guys just kind of did whatever they wanted."
Bear gave an example of how the lack of direction from the coaching staff made it hard for the Canucks to develop trust and accountability with each other.
“If a guy’s in the wrong spot, my D-man, I go to him, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be here’ and the coach has never said that, then he goes, ‘Well, why? Why are you telling me what to do, you do your job, I’ll do mine,’” said Bear. “No, a coach implements what we’re supposed to do, where we’re supposed to go, and that’s when we can hold each other accountable.
“That’s what we kind of got at the end of the year. At the start of the year, we didn’t really have that. Guys just kind of did whatever they wanted. But now, I think we’re building towards that accountability, where if you’re not in the right spot, a guy could tell you, ‘This is where you’re supposed to go, this is what you’re supposed to do,’ and then everything in the game just flows together. Then you can build that trust and you build that relationship.”
"You don't really have to think, you just do."
In Bear’s mind, the type of structure he experienced in Carolina and that he saw being implemented towards the end of the Canucks’ season simplifies the game and makes it easier for everyone.
“It’s actually crazy: you don’t really have to think, you just do,” said Bear. “Everybody’s doing their job, you know where every guy is in every moment, and you build this trust and this relationship. It does make the game easier. If something’s going to go wrong or a play closes off, you just know where to dump the puck or move the puck next, because the next guy’s going to go there.”
The trick is to put that structure in place while leaving room for the type of creative improvisation of which a player like Elias Pettersson is capable.
“You play your system probably 60-70% — when you have the puck on your stick, you still have to play the game,” said Bear. “You have a guy going to a certain spot specifically because if there’s not a skilled or open play, you’ve got a bailout option and that’s what the system is.”
Bear did say that just because the Canucks played well down the stretch and implemented a new structure doesn’t mean it will carry over automatically to next season. He said “it starts all over” at training camp, which he’s excited about.
"Let me focus on hockey."
Currently, Bear doesn’t have a contract for next season, but he’s not overly concerned. The Canucks have made it clear they see him as a key part of the team, with his name mentioned in a letter to season ticket holders and his face plastered across advertisements for next season.
“Vancouver’s wanted to talk to me about a contract since November,” said Bear. “For myself, I asked them actually, let’s put that off for the year. Let me focus on hockey.”
With Bear fully buying into Rick Tocchet’s system and the Canucks fully buying into Bear being part of their future, it will be interesting to see just how big a commitment the Canucks and Bear make to each other with his next contract.
Comparable players have signed one or two-year deals worth between $2.5 and $3 million per year — will the Canucks instead look to make a long-term commitment to Bear?