5 solid reasons to be hopeful about an Oliver Ekman-Larsson bounceback in 2023/24

Photo credit:© Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
11 months ago
With Round One of the NHL Playoffs now nearly at its end, there are about six weeks left in the 2022/23 season as a whole.
From the perspective of the Vancouver Canucks, that means six weeks left until the 2023 offseason kicks off in earnest. More specifically, it means six weeks left until the 2023 buyout window officially opens, which in turn means six more weeks to decide what to do with one Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Now, it’s not possible to say for certain, as this managerial regime tends to be a little less open about their plans than past regimes, but it sure sounds like the current plan is to not buyout Ekman-Larsson this summer.
That means that the current plan is for Ekman-Larsson — who cannot be demoted without his permission thanks to his no-movement clause — to be on the roster and in the lineup at his full (retained) $7.26 million cap hit.
Which really means that the current plan — or perhaps, more accurately, the current hope — is that the man they call OEL will experience a significant bounceback in his play in 2023/24, at least as compared to his dismal 2022/23 campaign.
Head coach Rick Tocchet indicated as much when he spoke about Ekman-Larsson returning next season with “a gleam in his eye.”
But in this beleaguered market, fans are going to need a lot more than a simple eye-gleam to start believing in the OEL Comeback Tour of ’24.
So, today we set out to find a few more solid reasons to induce a little Optimism Ekman-Larsson.
And, folks, we found some.

The Injury Factor

If you ask Ekman-Larsson himself, he’ll tell you that the biggest reason to hope for a return to form in 2023/24 is the same factor that prevented him from finding that form last season: injuries.
After the season’s conclusion, OEL spoke to The Province about his long recovery from a broken foot suffered at the 2023 World Championships, which impacted his entire offseason and prevented him from doing the sort of training he normally would.
In his own words, Ekman-Larsson “started the season behind the eight-ball and I never caught up.”
If offseason injury recovery can lead to a slow start for someone as young and driven as Elias Pettersson, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it had a major impact on the 31-year-old Ekman-Larsson. And the issue only compounded from there.
His lack of ability to prepare in the offseason left him vulnerable to recurring pain from a couple of old injuries, primarily to his hip and ankle. When he officially exited the lineup again in February with a sprained ankle that would ultimately end his season, it was almost a mercy.
But Ekman-Larsson is healthy now. He had already resumed skating by the end of 2022/23, and felt like a late-season return to the ice was a possibility, even though the Canucks had shut him down.
That should mean a full summer of training, conditioning, and mental prep for OEL. Which, at the very least, removes some of the aggravating factors that caused his last season to sputter from the start.
It should be noted, however, that the injury factor is not solely interpretable as optimistic. It should be noted that the blueline as a whole did seem to perform significantly better with Ekman-Larsson out of the lineup.
It should also be noted that, according to Ekman-Larsson himself, the injury factor was the sole reason for the decreased quality of his play. When asked if he felt he had to alter or adjust his game otherwise in order to keep up as he aged, OEL had a one-word answer for The Province.
Fortunately, we think there’s more to it than that.

The Tyler Myers Factor

One can’t really talk about Ekman-Larsson’s bad season without also talking about Tyler Myers. OEL did spend nearly 50% of his even-strength time on the ice paired with Myers, so their fates were inextricably linked in 2022/23.
Back in 2021/22, the two combined to make one of the most surprisingly-effective defensive pairings in the league.
But that was not the story this season.
That both Ekman-Larsson and Myers had bad years cannot be disputed, nor can it really be argued that they didn’t each negatively impact the other. But if you had to pick one, it sure seems as though Myers dragged OEL’s play down more than vice versa.
 MinutesGoals ForGoals AgainstCorsixGShot ControlChance ControlHigh-Danger Chance Control
OEL with Myers433:45192742.86%45.37%43.58%42.68%41.57%
OEL without Myers 515:45223650.43%44.69%48.28%49.38%48.29%
From NaturalStatTrick, even-strength
It’s worth pointing out that OEL did wind up letting in goals at a slower rate with Myers than he did without, though not by much.
Nearly every other statistic available, however, says that Ekman-Larsson bled shots, scoring chances, and high-danger chances against while partnered with Myers, and yet mostly managed to keep his head above water whilst paired with other defenders.
Myers’ numbers, meanwhile, were pretty much the same with or without Ekman-Larsson.
If that’s not proof, it’s at least a strong indicator that partnering with Myers so often had a negative impact on Ekman-Larsson’s defensive performance.
Almost all of those same analytics, for example, swapped over into the positive when OEL was paired with Ethan Bear.
Which is good news, because it seems very unlikely that Myers will be a Canuck in 2023/24, and if he is, it should be simple enough to not pair him with Ekman-Larsson, or at the very least to no longer pair the two together in top-four, heavy-matchup-type situations.

The Analytics Factor

Outside of the WOWY stats, there are also a few analytic indicators available to support the idea that Ekman-Larsson’s results should get at least a little bit better next season.
It’s no secret that, for much of 2022/23, the Canucks suffered from some of the worst goaltending in the league, and OEL was personally hit pretty hard by this. His on-ice save-percentage for the year was just 88.02%, which is abysmal and in the bottom-50 leaguewide. Only Brock Boeser and Phil Di Giuseppe’s stats were hit harder by bad goaltending.
Assuming Thatcher Demko continues his own return to form in 2023/24, this issue should take care of itself.
On that same front, it cannot be discounted how the Canucks’ overall poor performance as a team must have diminished Ekman-Larsson’s statline, even as his play contributed to that poor performance in turn. The Canucks’ penalty kill, which was historically awful for much of the season, was definitely a major reason why OEL was on the ice for so many goals against. By the time the team had turned that around under Tocchet, OEL was off on the IR, missing out.
And while it’s generally more of a factor for forwards than defenders, we should definitely note here that Ekman-Larsson’s 2022/23 shooting percentage of 2.2% was more than five percentage points behind his career average of 7.4%. That probably amounts to some bad puck-luck, on top of everything else.

The Filip Hronek Factor

The current expectation is for Quinn Hughes and the newly-acquired Filip Hronek to each anchor a top-four pairing in 2023/24.
That means there’s a very good chance that Ekman-Larsson could find himself spending the majority of the season paired with Hronek. And if so, that’s very good news for OEL Bounceback Believers.
Right off the bat, Hronek would have to qualify as one of the better defenders Ekman-Larsson will have partnered with in his entire NHL career. But there’s more to it than that. The sheer swing in partner-talent between Myers and Hronek is a significant one, and it’s actually hard to imagine OEL not bouncing back at least a little bit as he swaps out one for the other.
Even if Hronek winds up partnering with someone else, like Akito Hirose or a UFA addition, that still results in a pairing that can soak up tougher minutes while Ekman-Larsson handles a lesser deployment.
But, on that front, we’ve actually got more to say.

The Deployment Factor

The number one way for the Vancouver Canucks, as an organization, to ensure that Ekman-Larsson achieves more success in 2023/24 is to put him in a better situation to succeed.
And that means reducing the difficulty of his deployment.
For all his struggles, the Canucks still relied far too heavily on OEL in 2022/23. He played more than 20 minutes a night in the top-four, with most of those minutes coming against top-six competition in what can be described as “tougher than league-average competition.”
From HockeyViz.com
He also started most of his shifts in the defensive zone, which is where the Canucks ended up far too often last year.
OEL was handed this deployment, which we can now recognize as too much for him, because there wasn’t really anyone else available to take those minutes. But that has now changed.
Hughes continues to ascend into the upper-echelons of NHL defenders, and will be able to take on more and more difficult minutes with each passing season. Hronek is now in the picture, and will soak up plenty of responsibility on his own.
Bear should stick around, and Hirose will get increasing time as he matures. Then there’s the possibility of further additions, either through free agency, trade, or the draft. And then there’s the addition-by-subtraction that comes with losing Myers.
All of it adds up to a 2023/24 blueline that should ask a lot less of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. And if he’s asked to do a lot less, it increases the odds of him getting his groove back and settling into a level of play that — if not anywhere near worthy of $7.26 million — at the very least is no longer actively detrimental to his team.
Hey, we are living in the age of late-career comebacks by Swedish defenders. Look at what Erik Karlsson just did at the age of 32.
Anyway, here’s to hoping.

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