Jim Benning’s job probably hinges getting the Vancouver Canucks back to the playoffs, and a playoff berth might depend on what they’re getting in Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
One year after he was heavily courted by the Canucks, Ekman-Larsson officially joined Vancouver on Friday in a blockbuster trade that also included Conor Garland. Although the Canucks unloaded the combined $12 million of salary cap hit of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, and Antoine Roussel for one more year, they take on $7.26 million of Ekman-Larsson’s cap hit for the next six seasons.
By many metrics, Ekman-Larsson isn’t worth that deal now, never mind six years from today.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, acquired by VAN, is on arguably the worst contract in the entire league. He has been absolutely terrible for the past three seasons and is getting paid like a #1 for the next six seasons. #Canucks pic.twitter.com/4nmwFV0a8t
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 23, 2021
While there are some glaring causes for concern, the 30-year-old was recently regarded as one of the best blueliners in the league. Is there any chance he can find his form again in Vancouver?
Even-strength defence is a concern
One of the reasons why Ekman-Larsson’s effectiveness as a player has diminished is because of his declining defensive play.
On a Coyotes team that was subpar defensively last season, Ekman-Larsson was one of the most permissive defenders on the team. His expected goals percentage of 42 was worst among all Coyotes defenders.
However, it’s worth noting that the 30-year-old’s main partner last season was depth defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin. Could Ekman-Larsson flourish with a better partner?
Still, part of the problem here is his fit with the Canucks. This team currently has a number of offensively-minded defenceman who aren’t reliable defensively. It’s fair to wonder how Ekman-Larsson’s addition will help the Canucks in that regard, one year after they led the league in scoring chances against.
Can he re-find his scoring touch?
One of the reasons why the former Coyotes captain signed an eight-year, $66 million deal in the first place? He can score goals.
For six straight seasons, Ekman-Larsson scored at least 10 goals per season. He also scored nine in 66 games in 2019-20 before the shutdown, making it seven straight campaigns where he was on pace for 10 goals or more.
However last season, his offensive production dissipated, in part due to a career-low 1.75 shooting percentage at even-strength. He also didn’t have as many key offensive zone starts, with Jakob Chychrun and Alex Goligoski being the primary pair that was relied upon for offensive production.
Again, age-related decline isn’t on his side, but there’s a good chance that Ekman-Larsson improves his shooting percentage at even-strength.
Still dangerous on the power play
One area where the 30-year-old still showed some effectiveness this season, was on the power play.
The Coyotes power play ranked 13th in the league this season, largely thanks to Ekman-Larsson’s contributions. His 7.86 power play points-per-60 was fourth in the NHL among all defencemen, trailing former Canuck draft pick Gustav Forsling, Victor Hedman, and Goligoski, who ran Arizona’s second unit.
The Swedish blueliner won’t have the same opportunity in Vancouver, but he should help a second-unit that did next to nothing last season. He is also used to running power plays that lacked talent in Arizona.
Understanding Oliver Ekman-Larsson
You can nitpick throughout all of the Ekman-Larsson negativity and try to formulate reasons why he might rebound. However, for the most part, this is a high-risk move by the Canucks.
The numbers will tell you that a renaissance isn’t possible, but understanding the defender’s background paints a slightly different picture.
Back in January 2017, Ekman-Larsson left the team mid-season to say goodbye to his mother, Annika. She passed away later that spring.
Then, during the 2017 offseason, captain Shane Doan was exiled from the organization, and Dave Tippett, one of Ekman-Larsson’s mentors, was fired. The Coyotes brought in Rick Tocchet as head coach, and the two endured a bit of a rocky relationship. It seemed like OEL was going to be named the Coyotes captain following Doan’s departure, but it was Tocchet who decided that the team would have only alternate captains in 2017-18.
Whether it’s because of Tocchet, age-related decline, poor defence partners, the pressure of being captain, recent injuries, or just the general dysfunction of the Coyotes organization, it’s clear that Ekman-Larsson’s game has deteriorated. If his performance is related to one of those qualitative factors, then there’s certainly a chance that he could rebound.
Garland said as much following the trade.
“I think [Ekman-Larsson] is a terrific player,” Garland said. “Even from talking to him after the season, maybe all he needed was a change of scenery and he can go back to being the player he thinks he is.
“He’s a terrific player, I’ve seen him dominate games. He was probably our best player in the bubble.”
Despite countless reasons for pessimism, a bounce-back can’t be completely ruled out. The Canucks playoff hopes for 2021-22, and Benning’s job, may depend on it