The Vancouver Canucks need to upgrade their defence. The Arizona Coyotes are looking to trade Oliver Ekman-Larsson. As Avril Lavigne would say, can I make it any more obvious?
Ekman-Larsson was on the trade block last year too and Canucks general manager Jim Benning nearly traded for him then. According to Elliotte Friedman, trade talks broke down when the Coyotes wanted Thatcher Demko in return.
When he couldn’t reach a deal for Ekman-Larsson, Benning moved on to pursuing Tyson Barrie in free agency before finally acquiring Nate Schmidt via trade. That single-minded focus on defencemen likely played a role in Benning “running out of time” to sign Tyler Toffoli.
Now Ekman-Larsson is on the trade block again.
“I think there’s an understanding that the Coyotes want to move on and I think the player wants to move on, too,” said Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. “One thing I hear about Ekman-Larsson is he needs a new start. It’s just gotten a bit stale for him and the franchise and he needs somewhere else to go to rejuvenate himself.”
That somewhere else shouldn’t be Vancouver.
Ekman-Larsson isn't the answer for Canucks' needs
The Canucks definitely need an upgrade on defence, particularly someone who can step in to replace Alex Edler’s minutes on the left side. Ekman-Larsson, despite his reputation as a top-pairing defenceman, is not the answer.
There’s a lot to like about Ekman-Larsson. He’s consistently put up 40+ points, including a 43-point pace in the shortened 2020-21 season. He’s a smooth and effortless skater, who has averaged over 23 minutes per game in his career while playing in every situation. He has decent size at 6’2” and 200 lbs and even boasts leadership qualities as captain of the Coyotes.
There are, however, a few sticking points to all of these positives. One is that he’ll be turning 30 in just a few weeks. With what we know about aging curves in hockey, Ekman-Larsson’s best years are likely behind him.
That’s a problem, because Ekman-Larsson still has six years remaining with an $8.25 million cap hit.
His cap hit alone should end any discussion of the Canucks’ acquiring Ekman-Larsson, but the truth is that the Canucks could make it work. With the right combination of salary retention and the Coyotes taking a salary cap dump in return — hello, Loui Eriksson — there are ways to get Ekman-Larsson under the cap.
Analytics show Ekman-Larsson's decline
Even if the Canucks could get it done, they shouldn’t, because Ekman-Larsson’s game has been steeply on the decline for several years.
We can see that decline via the isolated impact heat maps from HockeyViz. These heat maps attempt to account for contextual factors such as usage and quality of competition and teammates.
At his peak at 24-years-old in the 2015-16 season, not only did Ekman-Larsson put up 55 pints to lead the Coyotes in scoring, he was also a puck possession beast at 5-on-5. The deep blue colour in front of his own net at the bottom shows how teams simply did not get shots from in tight when Ekman-Larsson was on the ice, while the bright red in front of the opposing net at the other end of the ice shows how dangerous the Coyotes shots were.
Unfortunately, it’s been downhill ever since, with his worst season coming in 2020-21. The defensive zone shows vast red areas where Ekman-Larsson was unable to prevent opposing teams from creating dangerous scoring chances, while he was unable to create as much offensively.
Another way of looking at Ekman-Larsson’s season is using Wins Above Replacement (WAR). By TopDownHockey’s version of WAR, Ekman-Larsson is in the 5th percentile of NHL defencemen. In other words, 95% of NHL defencemen were better than Ekman-Larsson last season.
Evolving-Hockey’s version of WAR is a little friendlier to Ekman-Larsson. He comes in at 196th among the 301 NHL defencemen who played at least one game this season. The primary reason he didn’t finish lower is his power play offence, which ranked 6th among NHL defencemen according to Evolving-Hockey.
There's no fit in Vancouver for Ekman-Larsson
That’s another sticking point for the Canucks. As the rest of Ekman-Larsson’s game has declined, he’s at least been able to put up points on the power play. With Quinn Hughes certain to retain his spot as the quarterback of the first power play unit, however, Ekman-Larsson would get fewer minutes and less-talented teammates on the second unit.
Ekman-Larsson wouldn’t improve the Canucks defensively, wouldn’t fit on their first power play unit to help offensively, has a massive contract that would exacerbate the Canucks’ cap troubles, and will be on the wrong side of 30 as the team’s young core hits their prime.
There’s always a chance that a player like Ekman-Larsson bounces back in some way in a new environment. But at his age and with his contract, that chance just isn’t worth the risk for the Canucks. Frankly, it might not be worth the risk for any team.