Vancouver greeted Loui Eriksson and his six-year contract with a furrowed brow, and the first of these half-dozen seasons has done nothing to sate the skepticism.
Whether one ascribes to the notion the Canucks need to compete now or take their lumps for a better tomorrow, both sides can acknowledge this is a team three-to-four years from even getting within a stone’s throw of contention. Eriksson, 31-years-old, has a buyout proof contract, and in a best-case scenario won’t depreciate with time — worst case, he’s a millstone hanging from the next wave’s collective neck.
Everyone could agree, though, that the Canucks were bound to get their money’s worth in at least years one and two, and perhaps another indeterminate number of seasons thereafter. Eriksson, sidelined with a lower-body injury, has 11 goals and 13 assists to his credit for the 65 games he’s played. Prorated over a full season, it’s his lowest pace since his rookie season in 2006-07.
That’s an awful lot of nothing for the healthy $6-million the Canucks have invested in Eriksson this season, and then again annually for the five that follow. On the surface, year one of the Eriksson experiment is an unmitigated disaster, made especially distressing when one considers one of its chief aims was to breathe life into the Sedins’ careers, and well, that hasn’t exactly gone to plan either.
How far that drives fan ire is different from person to person. Some think Eriksson a poor player for his contract; others think him a poor player period. That doesn’t flesh out when you peel the layers back on Eriksson’s onion of a season, though.
Defensively, Eriksson’s played as advertised. The Canucks control the second-best rate of shot attempts with him on the ice as opposed to any other regular member of the lineup. Eriksson also has the second best impact on his linemates ability to control shot attempts at even strength.
On average, Eriksson’s linemates are better off for having him along for the ride. He’s consistently done the legwork to create an environment for sustainable offence at even strength.
You’d want that to flesh itself out by way of goals and assists, but hockey is a fickle sport. Sometimes you get the bounces, as Eriksson did when he put together a 30 goal season last year with the Boston Bruins, and other times, the only luck one can find is bad luck, and Eriksson’s used about six year’s worth and his first campaign isn’t even at a close.
Among players with 500 or more minutes at even strength, only 68 players have a lower personal shooting percentage. His on-ice shooting percentage isn’t much better, and other contextual nuggets include playing with the fifth-lowest quality of teammate by expected goals percentage among any Canucks skaters.
All this is to say that Eriksson is owed a better fate than the one he’s suffered. He’s playing tough minutes and doing everything in his power to put the team in a position to leave with their heads above water.
That doesn’t make the Canucks any better this season (or worse, depending on how nihilistic your brand of fandom) but it bodes well for Eriksson going into, at least, year two. Eriksson is in no way a bad player or one who’s even performing poorly. In fact, if you look at Expected Plus-Minus, he’s the Canucks best forward.
For those unfamiliar with that stat, here’s a link to DTMAboutHeart’s literature on the subject, and a small blurb from Hockey Data’s Corporate Technical Officer and Hockey Graph’s Managing Editor, Garret Hohl, on the subject.
— Garret Hohl (@GarretHohl) March 14, 2017
If and when Eriksson’s percentages normalize — and we know how this movie usually ends — I fully expect that he’ll produce at or near career norms as early as next season, and probably another few afterwards. This is a player who’s surely on the downslope of his career at 31-years-old, but that doesn’t make him altogether useless.
That’s going to be hard for Canucks fans to reconcile. Eriksson’s contract is, in a way, a focal point for everything that’s wrong with the way this franchise has operated for the last three seasons.
It’s fascinating, in a way. The league underestimated Eriksson so woefully, for so long. Part of the reason you wanted a player like Eriksson on your team was because of everything he did that wasn’t caught in the mainstream conscience of hockey minds — the obvious accolades like goals and the like. Those players are always far cheaper than they should be.
The problem in this instance, though, is that Eriksson’s 30 goal season in Boston forced the league to take notice. Whether that’s right or wrong, it strips him of one of his best assets, which is his ability to contribute beyond his salary.
Vancouver shouldn’t be fighting with the league to back up a Brink’s truck into the Eriksson estate; they should be fighting with the league to find the next Eriksson or a market inefficiency of similar stature.
The Canucks might not get their money’s worth this season. It’s possible they don’t for most of the six they’ve signed Eriksson too. That doesn’t make him any less of a player, though. And there’s every reason to believe that he’s a hell of a better player than he’s looked in Canucks green and blue so far.