Everyone and their blog has been talking about the Vancouver Canucks’ years-long quest for a high-quality right-handed defender.
We’ve already covered how the UFA market is probably not going to be the place to get one.
Given that the last good RHD that the Canucks drafted was Kevin Bieksa in 2001, the chances of landing one on Draft Day are also fairly slim.
The Canucks could always trade for an RHD, but then they’ve got to convince another team to give up perhaps the rarest and most valuable asset in hockey.
And, even if they do land one through one of the above methods, they’re still playing catchup, because, in truth, the Canucks probably need multiple high-quality right-handed defenders.
But what if the solution was already — pardon the pun — at hand? Because the Canucks don’t really need multiple RHDs, they just need multiple defenders who can play the right side of the top-four of their blueline.
[Enter Oliver Ekman-Larsson, stage right.]
The real crux of the issue is that between OEL, Quinn Hughes, and Tyler Myers, the Canucks already have an expensive and top-heavy D corps, but not the results to justify that cost. Ideally, they’ll be moving one of Ekman-Larsson or Myers to open up space and allow for more flexibility in rebuilding the blueline.
As we mentioned earlier in the week, there’s a good chance that Myers can be moved. But while doing so creates cap space, it also leaves the Canucks down another RHD.
Moving OEL, however, and his five remaining seasons at a $7.26 million cap hit, will be significantly more challenging. Talent-wise, he’s the player that the Canucks would rather keep around, anyway, but then there’s the issue of his handedness.
Sometimes, it seems like the Canucks could solve a lot of problems on their blueline by simply having Ekman-Larsson and Myers switch sides.
Actually, that’s more-or-less exactly the solution that we’re here to propose. Except we’re not actually advocating to play Myers on his unnatural side (can you imagine?) We’re proposing that the Canucks trade Myers for cap space, and then shuffle OEL over to the right side to cover his departure. It’s an unconventional move, but it’s one for which the benefits should outweigh the detriments — so long as it actually works out on the ice.
In many ways, Ekman-Larsson is already what the Canucks should be looking to add to their right side. He’s a great skater, their second-best transition defender after Hughes, and increasingly focused on his defensive responsibilities. OEL played a shutdown second pairing role for the Canucks last season, and while he’s still slowing down, he’s more than capable of continuing to handle those minutes.
Would OEL still be overpaid as a right side, second pairing defender? Of course. But take a look around the league, and see how the market has been set for the ultra-rare commodity that is the top-four RHD. Because of their scarcity, it’s a lot easier to swallow an overpaid RD on the books than an overpaid LD.
If the Canucks are stuck with Ekman-Larsson’s contract for the foreseeable future, they might as well get the most contextual value out of that contract as possible.
With OEL on the right side, the Canucks are probably still on the lookout for a long-term RHD partner for Hughes, but that’s nothing new — Myers was certainly not going to be that guy. There’s a slight possibility that a Hughes/OEL partnership works out well, but the Canucks are still much better served with the two anchoring their own pairings.
A young RHD that meshes well with Hughes’ game remains the top priority, and there’s no easy fix for that. But OEL on the right sure does make the rest of the blueline fall into place nicely.
Give the top pairing to Hughes and his elusive blueline soulmate.
Allow OEL to continue to carry a second shutdown pairing, but this time, have him do it from the right side. Who partners with him? Ideally, another defender with serious defensive chops, acquired via trade or free agency. Fortunately, acquiring such a player is far more feasible if the Canucks are looking for someone left-handed than if they’re looking for someone right-handed. A quick glance at the upcoming UFA list offers a few choice candidates, and LHD are certainly far more available on the trade market.
If possible, this OEL partner should bring an element of size and physicality to the table. The avoids the issue of an undersized left side of Hughes, OEL, and Jack Rathbone.
Speaking of Rathbone, this new system would allow him to crack the roster and match up with Luke Schenn on the third pairing, which is the perfect way for the talented young defender to break into the NHL.
And who knows? Perhaps a move to the right would be good for OEL. Maybe shooting from his off-side might reinvigorate his offensive game? Playing on the right regularly could give him a chance to get on PP1 more often, opposite Hughes on the blueline, and that would certainly mean more points.
But really, this move is all about the defensive side of the game. It’s about making the Canucks more difficult to play against. It’s about taking the somewhat-unsatisfactory state of the team’s salary situation and making the absolute best of it.
To recap, our proposed offseason plan now looks something like this:
- Find a RHD partner for Quinn Hughes.
- Trade Tyler Myers for picks.
- Swap Oliver Ekman-Larsson over to the right side.
- Find a LHD partner for OEL.
- Pop Rathbone and Schenn onto the third pairing, with Travis Dermott as the probable seventh defender.
Of course, we imagine that some of you are already screaming into your keyboard, because we’re purposefully ignoring the left-handed elephant in the room, and it’s this: all of this is moot if OEL can’t actually play well on the right side.
Back in his heyday as a Norris nominated defender in Arizona, Ekman-Larsson played a little on the right and played well there, but it’s not something he has extensive experience with. It’s a gamble, to be sure, but it’s one that has a higher chance of success with a player like OEL — smooth-skating, cerebral, patient — than it does with most others.
Really, there’s no way of knowing how it will work out until the Canucks try it. But try it they should. Have OEL start taking reps over there this summer. Put him on the right side through training camp, get him some exhibition games there, and hope that the quality of his play stays relatively consistent.
If it’s a success? Bravo, the Canucks are now one step closer to fixing their blueline.
If it’s not? Oh well, the Canucks are right back where they started without having taken on much risk in the attempt.
This might not qualify as a no-brainer, but it is the RIGHT choice at the moment — and we won’t even ask you to pardon the pun this time.
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