VANCOUVER – It will be years before we know if the Vancouver Canucks’ $43.6-million bet on Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a prudent one. But if you offered to refund the wager after one week of training camp, the Canucks would let it ride.
In his first pre-season game since July’s blockbuster trade from Arizona, Ekman-Larsson looked like the defenceman the Canucks want and not the one whose huge salary the Coyotes were eager to dump.
The 30-year-old played fast and physically in Monday’s 4-2 win against the Calgary Flames in Abbotsford, B.C.
Ekman-Larsson keyed a Canucks power play that scored twice and he drew two assists, including on Tanner Pearson’s even-strength goal in the third period after the defenceman stepped up aggressively in the neutral zone to force a turnover.
But more than Ekman-Larsson’s skating and passing skills were on display. After getting hit early by Brett Ritchie, then cross-checked by Dillon Dube, the Canuck was engaged physically. He ran over Byron Froese in the second period and, generally, appeared to be involved in the play whenever he was on the ice.
“I really thought he took charge tonight,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He played with a lot of energy. He had a lot of bite in his game, too, which you always like.”
Conor Garland, the speedy, buzzsaw winger whose availability from the Coyotes convinced the Canucks to take on Ekman-Larsson, was also excellent. He scored a goal that followed a deft toe-drag around Dube, but also made plays in the defensive zone and in traffic near the boards.
Garland wasn’t surprised by what he saw from Ekman-Larsson.
“He looks really good,” Garland said. “It's nice to see how fast he's playing, and he's moving the puck so well, and how physical he is. He looks really engaged. He looks like the Oliver I know.
“He was my captain (in Arizona) and anytime he threw a hit, he used to get our team really fired up. In the pre-season, to see him playing that way, I think it engaged a lot of guys even more. I'm excited for him and I'm excited for the team because that's a really good defenceman back there.”
Ekman-Larsson and Tucker Poolman, signed as a free agent from the Winnipeg Jets, are the Canucks’ No. 1 defence pairing.
The Hamonic mystery
The actual “biggest surprise” of training camp? Defenceman Travis Hamonic’s mysterious situation has turned into an off-ice story to rival the absence of unsigned Canuck free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
Re-signed to a two-year, $6-million free-agent contract in July and expected to play a top-four role as Hughes’ defence partner, Hamonic decided not to attend training camp for what the Canucks are calling “personal reasons” after general manager Jim Benning stated last Wednesday that the 31-year-old would be in Abbotsford. Apparently, circumstances changed after Benning’s pre-camp press conference, and Hamonic remains home in Manitoba.
Benning also stated that the Canucks would be “100 per cent” vaccinated before their season-opener on Oct. 13. Neither the team nor player has said anything about Hamonic’s vaccination status.
Hamonic has until this Friday to opt-out of the National Hockey League’s third pandemic season. If he does so, the Canucks can eliminate the first season of his two-year contract or push the entire agreement back a year. Either way, the Canucks would save Hamonic’s full $3-million-US cap hit.
But things could get messy if Hamonic doesn’t opt out and isn’t vaccinated. In theory, he is entitled to play. But that isn’t happening in Vancouver. Benning’s vaccination statement was unequivocal. Vaccination passports are also in effect in British Columbia, and are required at Rogers Arena.
The Canucks could assign Hamonic to their minor-league team (although he wouldn’t be allowed to play for Abbotsford, either, if unvaccinated) to save up to $1.125-million on his cap hit, and then further reduce his charge by suspending him when circumstances allow. Under protocols negotiated between the league and its Players’ Association, a player who is unable to travel or otherwise be available to practise or play due to vaccination guidelines can be suspended without pay.
However this plays out, it appears the Canucks could be without one of their key defencemen this season.
What about Hughes?
As for the defenceman who is vital, Hughes, the plot-twist on Hamonic has the possibility of further hampering contract talks between the Canucks and their star free agents. Vancouver has about $16-million of available cap space, and this figure has influenced contract discussions all summer because agent Pat Brisson, who represents both Hughes and Pettersson, has to figure out how to divide the money between his clients.
Brisson can’t hit a home run for one if it means striking out on the other. But if he waits until Friday, there may suddenly be another $3-million available.
The good news on D
What was confirmed through the Canucks’ first two pre-season games is that 22-year-old defenceman Jack Rathbone is above the battle at the bottom fringe of the lineup and should make the team after an impressive eight-game cameo at the end of last season.
Sure, the five-foot-10 blue-liner needs to continue to work on his defensive game. But he engages physically and plays bigger than his size. There has never been much doubt that Rathbone has the speed and puck skills to play, and his composure and ability with the puck were obvious in Monday’s win against the Flames and Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Seattle Kraken in Spokane, Wash.
It was also revealing that Rathbone was elevated on Monday to a pairing with veteran Tyler Myers, who practised in training camp last week with Olli Juolevi. Clearly, Rathbone is now ahead of Juolevi, who played Monday alongside prospect Jet Woo and might still make the NHL roster.
Winger Alex Chiasson’s audition with the Canucks has started well.
Chiasson, who spent the last three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, for whom he had a successful professional tryout in 2018, was given the chance to play Monday with Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson. The 30-year-old looked like a capable NHL winger and provided experience and net-front presence on Vancouver’s power play. He finished plus-one and drew an assist while jamming the net on J.T. Miller’s goal.
“I saw the lineup yesterday and the opportunity today to play with Bo and Pearse,” Chiasson said late Monday. “Those two guys just play the game the right way. It's easy to play with them. I think Bo is really underrated, just the way he plays. He's always well-positioned.
“I've bet on myself three times so far (on PTOs), and I've come out on the right side of it. It's not always been easy. Sometimes you leave and you don't know where you're heading and how long you're going for. But I think I've learned as time goes -- this is my 10th year in the league -- go one day at a time and just try to show what I'm capable of doing. I thought tonight was a step in the right direction.”
The Canucks would be Chiasson’s sixth team. He has played 564 NHL games.