VANCOUVER – Finally unshackled from the Loui Eriksson disaster and two other onerous contracts, the Vancouver Canucks need to be better at managing their salary cap. But they also need to be better at managing expectations.
When Eriksson was signed to that six-year, $36-million anvil in 2016, he was sold to Canucks fans as a first-line winger. Brandon Sutter was going to be Vancouver’s second-line centre. In successive years, fans voted Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher the team’s top defenceman, leaving the rookies nowhere to go but down.
So when Jim Benning made his big, bold bet on Friday, dumping three bad contracts and trading his first-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for winger Conor Garland and most of the $49.5 million remaining on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract, it was a little disconcerting to hear the general manager call Ekman-Larsson the Canucks’ No. 1 defenceman.
Ekman-Larsson may well lead the team in ice time next season. But if people think the Swede is going to roll back time four or five seasons and lead the Canucks’ defence for the next six years, they’re going to be angry and disappointed again.
Fortunately, Ekman-Larsson doesn’t have to be a dominant No. 1 defenceman for this trade to work for the Canucks. In fact, if he is that, it means 21-year-old phenom Quinn Hughes has failed to grow into that role ahead of Ekman-Larsson on the left side of Vancouver’s defence.
The career Coyote needs only to be reliable in all situations and capable of playing top-four minutes. Certainly, he needs to be a heckuva lot better than he was the last two seasons in Arizona.
“I felt that I've been struggling over the last four years,” Ekman-Larsson said Saturday from Sweden, that time frame suspiciously matching the four years since Rick Tocchet replaced Dave Tippett as coach in Arizona. “Before that, it was going great. You always go through times like that in a long career. But... it's the way that you get out of it and the way that you learn from it, and I feel like I've been doing that. I'm super excited to get another opportunity here with Vancouver.”
Last season was easily the worst of the defenceman’s 11-year career. His average ice time (20:58) and role were down, and despite easier matchups on Arizona’s second pairing, Ekman-Larsson posted advanced statistics across the board that were career-lows.
Arizona’s expected-goals-for were just 42 per cent when Ekman-Larsson was on the ice at five-on-five and its share of high-danger scoring chances was 39.1 per cent.
But the awkward environment the 30-year-old found himself in should not be discounted. One season into his eight-year, $66-million contract extension with the Coyotes, new management told their captain last summer he was no longer wanted and asked him to waive his no-move clause.
When October trade talks with the Canucks fizzled – the Coyotes back then were asking for players like Thatcher Demko before significantly lowering demands this month – Ekman-Larsson had to return to Phoenix to play for a regime that wanted rid of him.
It was difficult.
“Yeah, I think it was,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I mean, I'm not going to lie. But at the same time, it comes down to playing good hockey and I haven't been able to do that lately and that's when rumours start and people start talking about trades and stuff. I'm the first guy that will admit that I haven't been good enough. I'm always going to look myself in the mirror first (rather) than blame it on anybody else.
“I think it's just a matter of defending hard. When I was successful a couple years ago, I felt like I was defending really well and getting up the ice and moving the puck well. That's something that I felt like I kind of got away from a little bit, and that's something that I want to get back to. That's why Vancouver was interested in me, because I'm good at that and that's what I want to get back to.”
Relieved and thankful to be part of the Canucks – Vancouver and Boston were the only teams on his initial trade list – the defenceman said several times how “super excited” he was for the fresh start.
Daniel Sedin, who along with brother Henrik rejoined the organization in June as a special advisor to Benning, told Sportsnet 650 radio that Ekman-Larsson took “full responsibility” for his play the last couple of years and would be better in Vancouver.
“The main thing for me is he’s professional, he’s a leader,” Sedin said. “He’ll be so good with Quinn and (defenceman Jack) Rathbone, I think, teaching them how to be professional. It’s not about him, it’s about the team. He’ll do anything to help the team win and he brings everything you want in a teammate and a leader.”
But it’s doubtful Ekman-Larsson will bring enough on the ice to make everyone believe he is full value for the annual $7.26-million cap charge the Canucks face after the Coyotes agreed to retain $990,000 in salary for each of the next six years.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Ekman-Larsson can’t be a valuable member of the top-four. He essentially replaces Alex Edler, who just finished a two-year, $12-million contract that was widely praised as reasonable when it was signed in 2019. The Canucks paid Edler $6 million a year for his 33- and 34-year-old seasons. Ekman-Larsson just turned 30 a week ago.
“I just want to get started right now, to be honest with you,” he said. “I just want the summer to be over and move to Vancouver. I'm super excited about the fresh start.”
Motivation is a very good thing.