Scratching Oliver Ekman-Larsson was the right decision, but it doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow

Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Noah Strang
1 year ago
When the Canucks took their morning skate on Thursday, one of the surprises was that veteran Oliver Ekman-Larsson skated on the fourth defence pairing, usually a sign that he won’t be playing in that night’s game.
“That’s potentially true,” Bruce Boudreau said when asked directly if Ekman-Larsson was going to be a scratch. “I think he can be better, but I think there’s a lot of guys that can be better. It’s about accountability. It’s about a lot of things. It’s something you don’t want to do. He’s arguably our best defenceman but sometimes you just have to do what you think is the best thing for the team right at that moment and that’s apparently where I am.”
Boudreau calling Ekman-Larsson arguably the team’s best defenceman in the explanation for scratching him is confusing. While you might have been able to create some wild argument for Ekman-Larsson last year, this season he’s been closer to the team’s worst defenceman than its best.

Why Ekman-Larsson can’t be on the ice right now

At one point, Ekman-Larsson was one of the league’s premier defencemen. He was a silky smooth skater that had good vision and could quarterback a team’s top power play unit. Unfortunately for the Canucks, those days ended a few years before he arrived in the Pacific Northwest.
Ekman-Larsson is still a smart player. He can still make a strong breakout pass that starts a rush and he’s quite good at getting pucks on net from the point. However, his lack of mobility renders him ineffective. Father time has caught up with the 31-year-old who has dealt with some major injuries throughout his career.
The Canucks are allowing 3.6 5-on-5 goals per sixty minutes with Ekman-Larsson on the ice, the worst number of any regular defenceman.
Last season he made up half of a solid defensive pairing with Tyler Myers. They played opponents practically even at 5-on-5 — 48.88 expected goals % — despite facing some tough matchups. This season, that number has fallen to 39.68% as the duo has been a massive liability.

The catastrophic scope of this contract

When Ekman-Larsson was acquired, his behemoth of a contract was a major talking point. There was concern that he would become a liability down the road during the latter years of the deal. For him to be a healthy scratch after not even two full seasons with the Canucks is a massive cause for concern.
The timeline for Ekman-Larsson’s decline has been significantly advanced. Not only is he failing to live up to his gaudy contract number, he’s also struggling to prove that he belongs as an everyday NHLer. With four years left after this one at a cap hit of $7.26 million, this contract is looking like an anchor holding the Canucks down.
Ekman-Larsson joins Conor Garland as regular players that have been healthy scratched this season. The Arizona trade has been covered enough already, but it’s just another dissapointing reminder — along with Dylan Guenther’s World Juniors performance — of the catastrophic mistake.
Similarly to how the Loui Eriksson contract made team building difficult for Jim Benning, this Ekman-Larsson deal will be a massive hurdle for the current management staff. They will need to get very creative to find a way around this behemoth of a deal.

Is there any way out for the Canucks?

The easiest way for the Canucks to get out of this contract is to explore a buyout. Buying out Ekman-Larsson’s contract this offseason would result in some drastic upfront savings. However, they would be extending the pain an extra four years down the line.
Ekman-Larsson 2023-24 Buyout Numbers (PuckPedia)
If being healthy scratched in Thursday’s game serves as a wake-up call for Ekman-Larsson and his play improves, keeping him around is the best way forward. No one is expecting him to play like the defenceman he’s being paid to be, but he needs to be serviceable on the ice. If the rest of the season proves that injuries and time have aged him out of the uber-quick NHL of today, the $7 million in savings next season has to be looking awfully appealing for the Canucks.
There is no point in wallowing because of mistakes already made. The focus must shift on how to handle this contract in the future and no stone can be left unturned. Finding a way to get out of this contract without losing too many assets would be a massive win for the Canucks no matter how it’s framed.

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