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Examining the Canucks’ 6 options of what to do with Oliver Ekman-Larsson

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Stephan Roget
1 year ago
There’s something a little strange going on in the discourse surrounding the Vancouver Canucks right now.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been out of the lineup for almost a month with an ankle injury, and it seems highly probable at this point that he’ll miss the remainder of the 2022/23 regular season. And yet, he’s being discussed about as frequently as he was when he was actually hitting the ice earlier in the year.
Why’s that?
Let’s turn to our own Wyatt Arndt for the reasoning:
And The Stanchion isn’t the only one noticing, or saying as much.
Now, some credit is obviously due to Christian Wolanin and Guillaume Brisebois here. Both have outplayed expectations after being called up under less-than-ideal circumstances. They’re helping hold together a patchwork blueline by committee, and that’s commendable.
But when people talk about Wolanin and Brisebois outplaying Ekman-Larsson, they aren’t really talking about how well those two are playing. They’re talking about how bad Ekman-Larsson had been playing previously, and how easy it seems for someone to replace — or even exceed — his contributions.
That’s a major problem for the Canucks. OEL might be replaceable, but only in the sense that an equivalent replacement might be easily found. Actually removing Ekman-Larsson from the roster so that said replacement could take his place is a significantly more difficult undertaking.
Ekman-Larsson is on the books at a $7.26 million cap hit for this season and the next four. He’s got a full no-movement clause in each year. If he’s not the owner of the worst contract in hockey, he’s awful close to that distinction.
And the Canucks might be one of the teams least able to afford him. They’ve already got one of the most expensive bluelines in the NHL heading into 2023/24, and it’s a blueline that still needs considerable improvement. As of now, OEL seems to stand in the way of that improvement.
So what do you do with a problem like Oliver Ekman-Larsson?
Below, we examine the Canucks six main options for the offseason to come.

Trade At Full Cap Hit With Franchise-Shattering Assets

For the sake of completion, we have to include this option, even though it’s so unlikely and impractical as to nearly be impossible.
In theory, anything is acquirable if one pays the right price. But convincing another team to take on all four remaining years of OEL’s $7.26 million cap hit? That would require a price that couldn’t possibly be right for the Canucks. It would require a price that ruined the prospects of the franchise for years to come. We’re talking multiple first round picks along with useful young roster players.
And then there’s the challenge of actually finding a suitor who could feasibly fit Ekman-Larsson in in exchange for that price. And then there’s convincing OEL to waive his NMC to go to said suitor. No, this option isn’t really an option at all, and there’s just no way the Canucks get out of this one without a little dead cap on their hands.

Trade At A Reduced Cap Hit Along With Major Assets

As it stands, the Canucks can probably afford to retain a little salary, especially if it’s done in the course of trading the rest of Ekman-Larsson’s contract. Retaining for a full four years is always tricky, but with the cap expected to go up soon enough, it would be doable.
Even with his cap hit retained down to, say, $5 million or so, Ekman-Larsson would still be exorbitantly expensive to move.
This season alone, we saw second round picks traded to move fairly minor contracts (see Jason Dickinson) and third rounders handed out for a quarter season’s worth of contract retention. Toronto has traded first round picks to dump the likes of Patrick Marleau and Petr Mrazek in recent years, and they weren’t signed for an additional half-decade. The cost to take on four years of OEL, even at a reduced price, has to start at multiple first round picks and quality prospects.
Again, a partner has to be found for such a deal, and Ekman-Larsson must agree to it. Again, it’s a price that the futures-starved Canucks couldn’t afford to pay, anyway.

Trade At A Fully-Retained Cap Hit Along With Significant Assets

If the Canucks were willing to use retention to its maximum effect, at that point we might start to see some movement on the OEL trade front.
A player’s contract can only be retained on twice, and any one team can only ever retain 50% of a remaining contract via retention. Because Arizona already retained a small portion of Ekman-Larsson’s original $8.25 million AAV, the Canucks could subsequently retain a max of half of his remaining cap hit, or $3.63 million.
At a $3.63 million cap hit, there might actually be a slight market out there for Ekman-Larsson. At a $3.63 million cap hit from now until he’s 35 years old? There’s probably not a market.
Thus, even at maximum retention, it would cost the Canucks a pretty penny to move him. How pretty? Let’s start with an unprotected first round pick, and probably add on a fair bit from there.
Once again, it’s a price that the Canucks realistically cannot afford, though it is one that it’s a little easier to imagine them paying.
This amount of reduction would open up the amount of teams that could feasibly fit Ekman-Larsson, at least, which makes the NMC less of a barrier. Still, this is not an option that could be described as anywhere near ideal.

Buy Out

There’s been a lot of chatter around an Ekman-Larsson buyout as soon as this offseason, and it’s not difficult to see why. As painful and onerous as buyouts can be, it might be the Canucks most realistic option to rid themselves of OEL’s contract without paying heavy assets to do so.
We’ll let our pals at PuckPedia handle the hard numbers:
As anyone can plainly see, buying out Ekman-Larsson in the summer of 2023 is a great option…at first. The Canucks would save a boatload of cap for 2023/24, a significant amount the year after, and then a still-consequential $2.5ish million in years three and four of the buyout.
Then it gets complicated. A penalty of a little greater than $2 million stays on the books from the 2027/28 season until 2030/31.
On the one hand, that’s a long time to have dead cap on the books. Some of the players that will be playing on the Canucks at that point in time are just entering high school now. The thought of taking the OEL issue and extending it to the 2030s sounds a little ridiculous.
On the other hand, that’s a long ways away, and the cap ceiling should have risen a fair bit by then, barring another global pandemic.
And then on a secret, third hand, we’ve got the hope that the Canucks will be competitive by that point in time, which could mean that they really need that extra $2 million off the books in order to put themselves over the top. Are cap savings in the present worth cap penalties in the future, when it seems like the Canucks won’t be contending anytime soon?
Buying OEL out this summer is a solution, but it’s not a perfect one.

Waive And Demote

Hey, if Ekman-Larsson is really beat out for his job fair and square by someone like Wolanin, why not just do what a team would do to anyone else in that situation: waive them, cut them, and send them down to Abbotsford.
Unfortunately, “burying” a contract in the minors just ain’t what it used to be. Though the buriable amount rises with the cap, it’s never very significant. Right now, it’s set at a grand total of $1.125 million, which is chump change in the grand scheme of things.
What that means is, were the Canucks to waive and demote OEL, he’d remain on their books at a cap hit of $6.135 million. That’s still quite a lot, and it gets worse, because Ekman-Larsson’s spot on the blueline would also have to be replaced.
Even if the Canucks replaced him with a player making the league minimum, they’re looking at a grand total of maybe $300K in true cap savings. That’s hardly worthwhile.
There are some who may see waiving and demoting OEL as a method of hastening an early retirement, but that’s an uncertainty at best and a downright unlikelihood at worst. The lowest that OEL’s base salary drops to is $5.25 million in its final year.
No one walks away from $5.25 million instead of living in Abbotsford. It’s just not going to happen.
And of course, OEL would have to waive his NMC to be sent down, making it an even less likelier outcome.

Acceptance

In the end, the most realistic option, even if it isn’t the best, is to accept that the Canucks are going to have an exceptionally expensive bottom-pairing defender on their roster for the foreseeable future.
With no other good options on the board, and only costly ones, the Canucks could very likely find themselves stuck with Ekman-Larsson and hoping for at least some level of a rebound in his play. Buyouts become more impractical after this summer. Trades could become easier, but not by much.
With other long-term veteran contracts on the books, this will eventually lead to further complications, as it already has.
But since when has anything ever been easy in this market?

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