If the Canucks don’t buy out OEL, how can they retool their blueline in the 2023 offseason?

Photo credit:© Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 year ago
You can’t always get what you want.
Especially not when what you want costs around $20 million.
A few weeks back, we here at CanucksArmy attempted to tackle the thorny issue of what to do with one Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
In the end, we concluded that an offseason buyout was the most prudent and effective choice left to the Canucks. Doing so would give Vancouver vital cap and roster space immediately, but also more so in a few seasons, which is when they really aim to compete.
It would also remove one of the biggest distractions surrounding the team moving forward.
Unfortunately, GM Patrik Allvin has already signaled pretty clearly that he will not be planning any buyouts for the summer of 2023.
So, where does that leave OEL?
In all likelihood, the answer is: still on the roster.
When we last looked at the OEL options, we noted that a trade was close to an impossibility already, and wasn’t about to get any more likely. To move Ekman-Larsson and his remaining four years of contract in this cap economy would cost the Canucks multiple first round picks, at a minimum, and that’s a price they just can’t bear.
There’s always the possibility of an LTIRetirement with Ekman-Larsson’s mounting injuries, but that doesn’t seem to be on the table as of yet, and isn’t really an option that can be counted on to any reasonable degree.
That, combined with his full-NMC making him ineligible for demotion, leaves OEL on the roster for 2023/24, and leaves the Canucks’ front office with the somewhat unenviable job of retooling the blueline around him.
Which is the challenge we’re here to lay out today.

The Existing Foundational Pieces

The good news about the Canucks’ retool plans are that they already have a couple of foundational pieces locked into place.
The first, and most prominent, of course, is Quinn Hughes. We won’t waste too terribly long extolling his virtues to the fanbase that should already recognize him as the greatest blueline talent in franchise history.
Hughes is still just 23 years old, he’s already set a handful of team scoring records, and he’s signed for another four years at a bargain rate. He’ll earn Norris Trophy votes this season and probably in most seasons to come for the next while.
He is someone that the Canucks can and should build around.
Next up is the newly-acquired Filip Hronek, a step down from Hughes in terms of skill and importance, but a step up from everyone else the Canucks had on hand prior to his arrival. The Canucks paid a hefty price to bring Hronek into the fold, but they did so with a purpose. He’s 25 years old, he’ll ideally be signed to a lengthy extension sometime in the next year, and he’s already proven capable of handling top-pairing minutes on the right side.
Between Hronek and Hughes, the Canucks have at least one half of a good top-four already in place.
It’s a bit premature, perhaps, but we’re also going to add Akito Hirose to the list of foundational pieces. He may be just seven games into his NHL career, but he already looks more NHL-ready than any other Canucks blueline prospect, save Hughes, has in at least a decade.
Even better, Hirose will probably remain at a fairly low salary for at least the next couple seasons, which provides the Canucks with a natural compensatory buffer to Ekman-Larsson’s bloated contract.
In a perfect world moving forward, Hirose plays like a top-four LHD while getting paid like a bottom-pair, and Ekman-Larsson plays (at least) like a bottom-pair LHD while getting paid like a top-four.
Maybe “perfect” isn’t the word, but it’s what the Canucks got.

Other Useful Pieces

Though we’d hesitate to call him foundational, we do think that Ethan Bear can be a part of the blueline solution in Vancouver moving forward; for at least another season, and perhaps a great deal longer than that.
Assuming that Bear can be re-signed to a reasonable extension — let’s say something with an AAV south of $4 million — he combines with Hronek to feasibly make up two-thirds of a solid right side, and potentially at a joint-price-point less than OEL’s individual compensation.
Bear has shown an ability to play alongside Hughes on the top pair, though we’d ideally have him anchoring an overly-capable bottom-pairing.
In order to get there, however, the Canucks have some salary issues to clear up first, and that means Tyler Myers.

The Salary Issues

Already, we may have described what could be a reasonable guess at the 2023/24 Vancouver blueline:
That’s a collection of six defenders that is both A) decidedly better than what the Canucks started off 2022/23 with and B) still definitely not good enough to compete with. It’s also one that already costs about $30 million, at a minimum, and does not deliver on the premium that such a salary should offer.
If the Canucks are going to refuse to unsaddle themselves from the burden of Ekman-Larsson, they’re going to have to overcompensate somewhere else on the blueline. This overcompensation might not happen as soon as the 2023 offseason, but it could, and it’ll have to happen eventually.
That could mean signing another top-four LHD to further reduce OEL’s minutes. But doing so would likely push Hirose right out of the lineup and keep him out of there for a while, and that’s far from ideal.
New Addition-Hronek
This group, too, would break the bank at a collective salary upward of $35 million, which would be in the running for most expensive blueline in the league without any of the other accolades that should go with it.
Another, much better option would be to acquire another top-four RHD to push Bear down into a bottom-pair role, thus overcompensating via an overloaded right side. But acquiring another quality RHD is easier said than done.
And it will absolutely require the dumping of Myers and the final year on his $6 million AAV contract. With an OEL buyout off the table, there’s simply no other way to move this blueline back toward adequate bang-for-buck territory.
The Canucks can manage one bloated salary and still put together a decent blueline. They can’t manage two.
Fortunately, Myers’ contract shouldn’t be that onerous to move. As soon as his signing bonus is paid out this summer, he’s on the hook for just $1 million in remaining salary. There’s every chance that a team with cap to burn takes him for free, and if the Canucks need to include a sweetener or a smidgen of retention in order to seal the deal, so be it.
The key is to get Myers’ $6 million off the books and replace it with someone actually capable of providing a net improvement to the D corps.

The End Result

With Myers out and OEL still in, the retooled 2023/24 blueline really starts to take shape:
Hughes-New Addition
Hughes gets that long-awaited new partner on the top-pairing and continues to hold down up to 25 minutes a night. Hirose and Hronek, meanwhile, form an all-purpose second pairing, with the veteran paving over any holes in the rookie’s game along the way. They play the bulk of the rest of the minutes.
Bear, meanwhile, gets his minutes where he can, and props up OEL in low-pressure situations, something he already did a passable job of in 2022/23.
Of course, as we already alluded to, clearing out space for that “new addition” is simple enough: ditch Myers, trade one or more of the high-priced wingers, and you’re already there. Identifying the right RHD, and convincing them to come to Vancouver at a reasonable salary, is another thing altogether.
For that discussion, however, you’ll have to tune in to our subsequent entries into what we’re calling our Retooling the Blueline series.
For now, “New Addition” remains an anonymous placeholder.

The Extras

Don’t worry. We won’t send you home without at least completing this proposed next year blueline.
Beyond that top-six, we’re fully confident that the Canucks will be carrying two extra defenders.
With OEL in place on the left side, and no real guarantee of him being an everyday NHLer from here on out, the 4LHD spot becomes more significant than it usually is.
Ideally, the Canucks are going to want someone there who can be expected to spell Ekman-Larsson out of the lineup fairly frequently, and provide about the same level of performance, if not better.
Fortunately, the Canucks have a handful of candidates on hand. Christian Wolanin probably leads the pack, and will have the inside edge on the job come training camp. Jack Rathbone, too, might have done enough developing at the AHL level and be ready for a 50/50 pressbox gig in the big leagues.
If the Canucks can’t cut OEL, they can at least line up a younger and more eager LHD behind him to let him know that, if he falters, he will be scratched without much hesitation.
At 8D, the Canucks probably aren’t going to find much better option than Kyle Burroughs, a natural RHD who can play the left just as well and who doesn’t mind going weeks without hitting the ice.
Tune in later this week as we start trying to fill those remaining gaps in the Vancouver blueline!

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