Photo credit:© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Canuck: Forever overshadowed by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the trade
8 months ago
From the moment he became a Vancouver Canuck, Oliver Ekman-Larsson was doomed.
When the Canucks announced their decision to buy out the remaining four years of the 31-year-old defenceman’s contract, it was already a nearly foregone conclusion that Ekman-Larsson’s Canucks tenure would end this way. But not many people expected it to end just two years into a potential six-year experiment.
Tasked with building a playoff winner out of a team that finished last in the short-lived North Division in 2021, then-GM Jim Benning made a massive yard sale of a deal that sent Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and three draft picks — including a ninth overall choice in 2021 that became Dylan Guenther — to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Ekman-Larsson and winger Conor Garland. The former Coyotes captain had once been the anchor of Arizona’s blue line, but his production had taken a massive drop off while injury issues plagued his effectiveness at both ends.
Rather than suffer through one more season with some rough contracts on the books, Benning bet on Ekman-Larsson to regain his form and his team finding their way into the playoff picture again before the effect of his cap hit would be truly felt.
Now, Benning has been out of the front office for a year and a half, Ekman-Larsson is free to find a new home, and the Canucks will be paying him $2.126 million per year until 2031.
The sad thing is, by inadvertently becoming the centrepiece for arguably the worst trade in franchise history, Ekman-Larsson was set up to fail in Vancouver.
There was always a chance that Ekman-Larsson could be a useful depth piece on a well-constructed, balanced blue line. But thanks to the price of his annual cap hit and the overall cost to acquire him, that was never going to be good enough.
Ekman-Larsson couldn’t just be okay, he had to be GREAT. And almost immediately, it was clear that would be too big a mountain for him to climb.
Despite finishing with the second most points by a Canucks defender in both seasons, 51 points in 133 games was nowhere near enough for someone the previous general manager had pledged was “going to be our number one defenceman”. That honour firmly remained with Quinn Hughes, whose 68-point and 76-point seasons over the same span both surpassed Ekman-Larsson’s career-high 55 in 2015-16.
He certainly had his moments. Ekman-Larsson’s Canucks tenure started off in a promising fashion with a goal in the 2021 season opener against the Oilers. And his reaction to a penalty in Philadelphia will live on as a Canucks meme and the odd Twitter avatar.
But defensively, Ekman-Larsson went from surprisingly adequate in Year 1 to a major liability in Year 2. An ankle injury he had picked up at the 2022 IIHF World Championships added to his long list of injuries, making him a regular turnstile for speedy forwards before he was finally shut down for the final 27 games of the year.
Had he come to town on the kind of low-cost, short-term deal he’ll likely pick up as a free agent this offseason, Ekman-Larsson’s time in Vancouver could’ve been looked at as a moderate success. But the veteran Swedish defender was in about as close to a ‘lose-lose’ situation as you could get, and it only gets worse when you factor in the Canucks giving up years of cap space and the opportunity to draft a useful forward in Dylan Guenther just to get him.
The mess of acquiring Ekman-Larsson only to buy his massive $66 million contract with four years left will be felt by the franchise for years to come, as the Canucks are forced to build around over $2 million in dead cap from now until the next decade. Contract negotiations, trade talks, and minor league call-ups will all feel the lasting impact of the Ekman-Larsson trade, overshadowing any of his on-ice contributions to the team.
The only saving grace of the ordeal has been Conor Garland, who was firmly considered the second most important piece by the team at the time. Garland has been extremely effective in a Canucks uniform, averaging 49 points per year and logging some of the best underlying metrics on the roster. And in a major twist of irony, buying out Ekman-Larsson’s contract has likely saved the Canucks from giving Garland away for immediate cap relief.
Who knows? Maybe Garland or a player the Canucks’ front office will spend their newfound cap space on will morph into an MVP caliber superstar or score a Stanley Cup-winning goal in Vancouver, and that will be the legacy that Oliver Ekman-Larsson leaves behind. But until that day comes, the only thing he’ll be remembered for by Canucks fans is the violent aftermath of trading for him and the next eight years of cap space he’ll be taking up.
Farewell, OEL. We hardly knew ye.
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