Why Canucks acquiring Oliver Ekman-Larsson can open many possibilities

Elliotte Friedman joins Jesse Fuchs ahead of NHL free agency to discuss where the Vancouver Canucks stand in regards to Oliver Ekman-Larsson as well as what the Toronto Maple Leafs should be doing with their defence.

VANCOUVER – As the Vancouver Canucks continue to explore ways of absorbing Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s massive pre-pandemic contract amid an NHL recession, general manager Jim Benning didn’t so much dance around the issue Monday during an online press conference as leave the dance floor.

He’s not talking about Ekman-Larsson, the 29-year-old defenceman who still belongs to the Arizona Coyotes and is owed another seven years and nearly $58 million on a contract that team was eager to sign two years ago as proof of a feeble franchise’s intent to get better.

Under new ownership and management, the Coyotes changed their mind last week and asked Ekman-Larsson to accept a trade. The career Coyote with the no-movement clause was so enthusiastic, he gave Arizona GM Bill Armstrong two teams – and only two teams – to deal with: the Canucks and Boston Bruins.

If you are confused why any team would consider taking on a player with a $8.25-million cap hit for the next seven seasons when the NHL salary cap is debilitatingly flat, you are not alone.

Why not ask if the Dallas Stars are willing to surrender the next seven years of Tyler Seguin’s contract at $9.85 million, maybe see if you can pry Sergei Bobrovsky from the Florida Panthers and pay him $10 million for the next six years?

To understand the Canucks’ interest in Ekman-Larsson start with this: the team considers the Swede a genuine No. 1 NHL defenceman, who are rarely offered to you in trade at discount prices; and only by taking on a huge contract can Vancouver unload some “bad money” from its payroll, which would make the incoming player slightly less expensive.

Getting the Coyotes to take the final two years of Loui Eriksson’s contract, for example, would lower the cost on Ekman-Larsson by $12 million and make the Canucks profoundly better in the short term, even if it did nothing to mitigate the grave danger that the NHL’s fifth-highest paid defenceman will be long past his best before his contract expires.

It’s also worth remembering that unless Ekman-Larsson broadens his trade list, a request he has already rejected, the Canucks and Bruins have a significant advantage over the Coyotes in negotiations.

The Canucks want Ekman-Larsson, but not at any cost. And, with the Canucks ascending as a team with 20-year-old Quinn Hughes the focal point of their defence, Vancouver certainly does not “need” Ekman-Larsson.

“I have discussions with lots of teams in the league and I don’t know where it’s going to end up going,” Benning told reporters during his pre-entry draft press conference. “Those are conversations that we have to do our due diligence and find out what’s going on with certain players and certain teams.”

Asked generally about potentially taking on a huge contract at this unprecedented time, Benning said: “We’ve done all that planning. We would never take on a contract that we couldn’t figure out how it’s going to fit into our cap situation for next season.

“We’ve gone through 100 different scenarios. What does it look like if this guy is on the team or that guy is on the team? That all goes into the planning that we do on a team-building standpoint.”

Benning said all teams face the same salary-cap pressure the Canucks feel, but argued Vancouver is in a strong position due to the talented, young, inexpensive players it has on its roster and pushing for an NHL spot.

He said minor-league prospects Olli Juolevi and Jalen Chatfied are “ready to play” on defence, and college star Jack Rathbone and Swedish dynamo Nils Hoglander could challenge for a place in the lineup next season. Winger Vasily Podkolzin will play in Vancouver after his Russian contract expires in 2021, and goalie Thatcher Demko just finished his rookie season on the Canucks.

But Benning must keep a huge share of his payroll available to re-sign Hughes and offensive star Elias Pettersson when their entry-level contracts expire after next season.

“We’re going to have money for them,” the GM said.

Benning addressed several issues in Monday’s call.

• Currently without first- and second-round picks in the draft that begins Tuesday, Benning remains hopeful he may be able to trade his way back into the second round or add a pick later in the talent lottery. Winger Jake Virtanen is believed to be his main bargaining chip.

• Although contract negotiations involving starting goalie Jacob Markstrom have lacked traction, Benning said talks will continue until the Canucks MVP becomes an unrestricted free agent on Friday. “Our first choice (is) to try to figure out a way to bring him back.”

• The Canucks are expected to “qualify” all their NHL restricted free agents, but Benning said not all QO decisions have been made ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.

• The GM admitted the team faces some “tough decisions” with its free agents. Potential UFAs Tyler Toffoli and Chris Tanev want to stay in Vancouver but are waiting to see what happens with Markstrom before knowing how much money might be left for them.

“Part of it is this flat-cap world that we’re going to be living in,” Benning said. “We have to make tough decisions that maybe, you know, six months ago if the cap was going up a little bit, we wouldn’t have to make those decisions. (But) it’s just not our team going to make those decisions, it’s going to be all teams throughout the whole league.”

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