Right here, right now, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is well worth his cap hit to the Vancouver Canucks
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
Most took the July 23, 2021 blockbuster between the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes as essentially two separate transactions.
The first entailed swapping the 9th overall selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft for Conor Garland. Six games and eight points later, that portion of it seems to be working out beautifully.
But the more controversial half of the trade was always going to be the exchange of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, and a couple additional draft picks for Oliver Ekman-Larsson — or, to be more specific, for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the remaining six years of his current contract.
Even with Arizona retaining some salary, the Canucks found themselves on the hook for an AAV of $7.26 million through 2027, which would constitute a huge financial commitment for any player, never mind one who had been trending downward for half a decade prior.
And yet, right here, right now, the man they call OEL looks to be worth it. Not just worth the return of Eriksson, Beagle, and Roussel — that was a rather low bar to clear — but worth the onerous cap hit that came with him.
Will that remain the case throughout the next six seasons, too? Almost certainly not. But that’s a problem for another day. We’re living in the now, and present tense OEL is earning that paycheque.
Through six games, Ekman-Larsson is second on the Canucks in average ice-time, bringing down about 24:33 on a nightly basis. There’s no real need to distinguish which of he or Quinn Hughes’ truly counts as the top pairing. Both are playing top pairing minutes at the moment.
It is Ekman-Larsson’s minutes, however, that really stand out as consequential.
To date, Ekman-Larsson has faced a deployment that is significantly more difficult than that of an average NHL defender, which a large portion of his ice-time coming against opposing top lines.
Right now, those minutes also include zone-starts that are split relatively evenly between the two ends of the ice, but one has to expect that ratio to skew in favour of the d-zone over time.
Like it or lump it, coach Travis Green is employing Ekman-Larsson as the Canucks’ primary shutdown defender right now. And it’s arguably working out quite well.
Despite the deployment, Ekman-Larsson is still a positive player at five-on-five, on the ice for six goals for and five against thus far.
All other indicators of Ekman-Larsson’s control of the game are extremely encouraging. His even-strength Corsi rating is second on the team behind Alex Chiasson at 55.61%. His control of scoring chances ranks third, and in high-danger chances specifically, OEL is tied for first.
This, again, comes with the context of having faced the toughest competition on the team.
It also comes with the context of blowing last season’s Arizona numbers out of the water. OEL is playing more minutes and tougher minutes in Vancouver, and yet almost all of his analytic measures have jumped up nearly ten percentage points.
This is what bouncing back looks like, and it looks pretty darn nice.
If anything is lagging, it’s Ekman-Larsson’s offence with only two points through six games. But that’s of secondary importance right now, and it’s almost guaranteed to rebound anyway. Ekman-Larsson leads the Canucks with 25 shots on goal, and is shooting at a percentage about half of his career average. The points will come with time, and they’ll make OEL even more valuable when they do.
Ekman-Larsson has even managed to make a strong impact on the penalty kill. The Canucks have been struggling mightily whilst shorthanded in 2021/22, but not so much with OEL out there.
Not only does Ekman-Larsson lead the team in shorthanded ice-time at nearly three minutes per game, opposing power plays also score at approximately half the rate against him as they do Vancouver’s other regular PKers.
But the stats, as always, can only tell us so much. Fortunately, the intangible factors also speak rather loudly in favour of OEL.
We wrote last week about how Tyler Myers is finally playing like the defender the Canucks are paying him to be. There, we gave plenty of credit to Myers, and we’ll continue to, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit that the biggest reason for the turnaround is that Myers is now paired with Ekman-Larsson on a nightly basis.
With a new partner, Myers has gone from defensive liability to quasi-shutdown D. And that comes with an enormous benefit to the Canucks, both on and off the ice.
If OEL and Myers’ combined $13+ million in cap hits were being spent on two ineffective players, it would simply be too much for the Canucks to overcome. OEL reviving his own play, and dragging Myers along with him, singlehandedly makes the Canucks a more financially efficient team. That might be as big a difference-maker as the on-ice impact.
All of which goes to prove that adding Ekman-Larsson to the mix for 2021/22 has been a net positive. But it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s worth his cap hit.
Across the league, there are 24 defenders making an average of $7 million or more per season. By that measure, OEL would have to be a top-24 blueliner to justify his salary, and he’s probably not. By that measure, he’s still overcompensated.
But here, we have to go back to that trusty ol’ context, and start thinking about the existing team structure.
Before OEL arrived, Vancouver possessed one of the leakiest bluelines in hockey. They had absolutely no one capable of skating against opposing top lines on a regular basis, never mind breaking even against said top lines. It was the single most obvious gaping hole in what looked to be an otherwise playoff-worthy lineup, and it was glaring.
Now, through his presence alone, the Canucks have not one, but two workable shutdown D. If he and Myers can just continue their current rate of success under their current level of deployment, that’ll be all the Canucks need to be a playoff team. If the OEL/Myers combo can take it a bit further and improve upon what they’ve already shown, it will put the Canucks several paces closer to being a genuine contender.
Adding Oliver Ekman-Larsson was one small step for Jim Benning, but one giant leap for the Vancouver blueline.
And worth $7.26 million? Right here, right now, the answer is yes. Tomorrow, that may change, but that’s a problem for another day.
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