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Will Ekman-Larsson healthy scratch wake up the complacent Canucks?

The Vancouver Canucks’ game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday was one of the worst defensive performances of the season — not just the Canucks’ season, but the entire NHL season.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is expected to be a healthy scratch for the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The Vancouver Canucks’ game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday was one of the worst defensive performances of the season — not just the Canucks’ season, but the entire NHL season.

According to hockey analytics site Natural Stat Trick, the Canucks gave up 50 scoring chances to the Penguins and 29 high-danger chances. As initially pointed out by The Athletic’s Thomas Drance, only one other team this season has had a game with 29 high-danger chances against — the San Jose Sharks when they faced the Anaheim Ducks last week — and they allowed 47 total chances.

"It's about accountability."

It’s the type of performance that tends to lead to lineup changes. On Thursday morning, the Canucks rolled out some new forward lines and defence pairings. Surprisingly, one of the Canucks’ top-four defencemen found himself not even in the top six: Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

“That’s potentially true,” said Bruce Boudreau when asked if Ekman-Larsson will be scratched. “I think he can be better but I think there’s a lot of guys that can be better now. It’s about accountability, it’s about a lot of things.”

Boudreau talked about accountability last week, suggesting he hasn’t held the players to the standard he needs to. 

“I always used to tell people the coach’s job is to find the Achilles heel of the player,” said Boudreau ahead of the Canucks’ game against the Colorado Avalanche. “In other words, if it’s a kick in the butt or a pat on the back, or take ice time away, or in the older days taking money away, it’s my job to find out what makes them tick and what makes them go. And maybe sometimes I’ve let that slide a little bit. So it’s up to me to make these guys more accountable.”

There are certain players on the Canucks’ roster who have been held more accountable than others this season and Boudreau has shied away from scratching veteran players, though he came close to scratching Brock Boeser earlier in the season. Scratching Ekman-Larsson definitely sends a message. 

"He's arguably our best defenceman."

The 31-year-old defenceman is one of the most experienced players on the roster and also one of the most highly paid, with an $8.25 million average annual value on his contract that runs through 2027. He also wears an “A” as one of the team’s alternate captains and is expected to be one of the leaders of the team’s defence corps.

So, when the defence is struggling as much as they have been, it makes a certain amount of sense to scratch one of the leaders rather than one of the footsoldiers. 

“It’s something you don’t want to do, he’s arguably our best defenceman,” said Boudreau. “But sometimes, you just have to do what you think is the best thing for the team right at that moment.”

If Boudreau legitimately believes that Ekman-Larsson is the team’s best defenceman, the Canucks have bigger issues. Ekman-Larsson has been a major part of the problem this season.

Among regular Canucks defencemen, Ekman-Larsson has been on the ice for the second-highest rate of goals against, behind only Riley Stillman, who is likely to step into the lineup on Thursday. 

That’s a result of also being on the ice for the third-highest rate of expected goals against, behind only Stillman and Tyler Myers.  

Ekman-Larsson has a 45.85% corsi percentage — the Canucks are out-shot by about 10 shot attempts per 60 minutes when Ekman-Larsson is on the ice at 5-on-5. Somewhat depressingly, that’s actually about average for the Canucks’ defence corps.

Ekman-Larsson gives up the blue line more than any other Canuck

While Ekman-Larsson has been used in some tough defensive minutes this season, the trouble is what he does with those minutes. If the Canucks consistently give up chances and goals at a higher rate when Ekman-Larsson is on the ice, then he probably shouldn’t be playing those minutes.

Ekman-Larsson’s defensive struggles also show up in the microdata tracked by Cam Charron this season. By that data, he’s the team’s most permissive defender at the Canucks’ blue line. 

“When an opposing player enters the zone against Oliver Ekman-Larsson, he does so with control 59% of the time, worst on the Canucks,” said Charron.

It’s become evident that Ekman-Larsson’s adaptation to his declining mobility has been to cheat backwards as much as possible. He’s less likely to attempt to hold the blue line in the offensive zone to avoid getting burned and his gap control has suffered as he allows opposing players more room to enter the defensive zone so that he doesn’t get beaten to the outside.

The end result is that he’s become a much less effective defenceman.

Duck against the Penguins

There was also a very visible issue last game. After so much talk of buying in and commitment over the last week, particularly to blocking shots, seeing Ekman-Larsson duck out of the way of a shot had to have rubbed Boudreau the wrong way.

Some have suggested that it was only natural for Ekman-Larsson to duck when a puck was flying towards his head. First of all, it wasn’t. The puck would have hit his shoulder, at worst. Second of all, Ekman-Larsson is getting paid $8.25 million per year to do difficult things like blocking shots.

For most people, our natural inclination is to get out of the way of projectiles. That cannot and should not be the instinct of a multi-million dollar defenceman in the NHL.

Was that duck part of the reason why Ekman-Larsson will potentially be in the press box on Thursday? Maybe, maybe not. 

Will scratching Ekman-Larsson lead to the rest of the Canucks’ core taking accountability for their own mistakes in the same way? Will this healthy scratch jolt Ekman-Larsson into upping his game for the rest of the season?

That remains to be seen.