Why the Canucks are making one of the NHL’s biggest buys on Oliver Ekman-Larsson

The entire hockey world knew the Vancouver Canucks were stuck.

As NHL general managers, scouts, and agents from across North America gathered at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo last week, everyone was aware of the Canucks’ dire cap situation. Vancouver was the only team in the league to actually exceed the projected maximum of $83.5 million in contractual obligations for the upcoming season. The club still has a request for a left-back to sign.

NHL teams knew the Canucks needed to get rid of the salary before they could even consider possible ways to bolster their roster this summer. And a roster upgrade this summer so that the Canucks would be a playoff-caliber team next season was necessary, given aggressive moves like the Filip Hronek deal that front office made. No one wanted to give the Canucks a get-out-of-jail card, and up until this point, it wasn’t easy moving money around in a flat climate.

The Canucks would now turn to an acquisition option, with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reporting and the club later confirming, that they would exercise one on Oliver Ekman-Larson, who had four years left on $7.26 million in Vancouver.

In January, the Canucks’ president of hockey operations, Jim Rutherford, said the organization would consider acquisitions if they were unable to move the money around. At that press conference, Rutherford spoke of how the club was seeking a quick reorganization rather than a rebuild, and that the front office would not be able to turn the team around until they resolved a cap-and-trade situation to give themselves flexibility.

Canucks general manager Patrick Alvin walked along at the end of the season and said he didn’t “intend” to use the acquisitions, but the salary move clearly wasn’t easy.

Why buy Ekman-Larsson now? Buying the 31-year-old would immediately save approximately $7.1 million in cap space this summer and $4.9 million for 2024-25. The savings dwindle in future years, which is why an acquisition only makes sense if it’s done now. However, this flexibility will come at a significant cost, as OEL will have a cap on Vancouver’s books through 2031.

When Ekman-Larsson first arrived in Vancouver in 2021-22, he delivered the Canucks’ best quality four minutes. He was clearly not as dynamic offensively as he was during his heyday, but he was driving the best defensive results of his career. OEL anchored the Canucks’ second pair that absorbed the toughest encounters against the opposition’s best players. In those difficult minutes, and without an excellent partner by his side, Ekman-Larson was close to equalizing in dominant shots and scoring chances, while driving a positive goal-share at five for five. He wasn’t worth the full $7.26 million the Canucks were on the hook for, but at least he was playing in good faith at the top four level.

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All that changed last season.

Ekman-Larson broke his foot while on national duty at the World Series and entering the 2022-23 season it looked like his game had fallen off a cliff. OEL’s diminished foot velocity was a major handicap. He was unable to turn around and retrieve the dumps, which made it impossible for him to move the ice puck efficiently.

Aikman Larsson has consistently been on rushing defense, which was a huge difference compared to 2021-22 when he was effectively rushing to the outside. He wasn’t effective even in static defensive settings as the opposing Athletics connected numerous passing tackles and back plays, which is one of the biggest reasons why the Canucks’ penalty kick is 32nd in the NHL.

Many are talking about AHL call-ups like Christian Wolanin seemed like legitimate promotions when Ekman-Larsson went down with a season-ending injury late in the year.

You can break the possession logic from the Canucks’ perspective as follows:

  • Vancouver has a clear desire to make the playoffs next season, for which upgrades will be needed at multiple centers this summer.
  • The Canucks had a crushing cap crunch that would have kept them from making those moves, and efforts to trade other contracts have yet to bear a proper deal.
  • His OEL has fallen so low that he wasn’t even one of Vancouver’s top six fullbacks last season. He has a complete no-movement and hitting mammoth cap clause, so his contract was non-negotiable.
  • The $7.1 million in savings for the summer of flat caps is colossal. The savings dwindled to $4.9 million next summer and taper off to $2.49 million in 2025-2027, so this was a now-or-never proposition — an acquisition a year or two from now made no mathematical sense.

According to CapFriendly, the acquisition of Ekman-Larsson is the sixth-largest deal ever in terms of salary Vancouver owes (their purchases of Zack Barris and Ryan Sutter, for reference, had a devastating effect on Minnesota’s salary cap status, but they really didn’t owe much in actual cash terms since their contracts are preloaded).

The acquisitions of Vincent Lecavalier, Rick DiPietro, Ilya Brizgalov, and Brad Richards were all compliance purchases made in 2013 and 2014, meaning they had no impact on their teams’ salary cap status.

What that means for the Canucks’ offseason

The practice of taking a regular run on the Eckman-Larson contract raises the stakes this offseason exponentially for the Canucks and their hockey operations division.

Before buying the Ekman-Larsson deal, the Canucks had more cap commitments for the 2023-24 campaign than any other team in hockey. After exercising this punishing, expensive takeover on the regular track, the club freed up just over $7.1 million in cap space for next season.

It’s telling that the Canucks proactively took this step. It’s not often that we see the practice of takeovers so early in the NHL buying window, as the device is most often used as a last resort by teams looking for some extra flexibility. That the Canucks made this move right off the bat, without putting Aikman-Larson on waivers as well as reversing his rights since he carries a no-action clause, says a lot. It’s a bunch of facts that scream that Canucks management hasn’t been remotely comfortable with the other options they have for eliminating cap space in less punitive ways.

The Ekman-Larsson acquisition gives the Canucks some breathing room entering what is widely expected to be a final flat or near-flat off-season, with CapFriendly.com currently projecting the club to have $6.44 million in salary cap space in the wake of the Ekman-buy. Larson. This figure assumes a cap of $83.5 million and does not account for the club’s restricted agents such as Nils Höglander, Akito Hirose and possibly Ethan Bear who will be due qualifying offers before the July 30 deadline or become unrestricted.

In any event, the total cap savings for Ekman-Larsson’s buyout exercise is approximately $10 million over the eight years in which the club will pay Ekman-Larsson two-thirds of the salary previously owed to him, spread over twice the term. The structure of the Ekman-Larson deal served to significantly reduce the total cap benefit of the takeover if the club had not acted now, and the club would have made just $6 million in cap benefit if Ekman-Larson had bought out next. next season with the figure dropping below $2 million after that.

Vancouver cap conditions are still tough, but freeing up the nearly full charge of Ekman-Larsson’s commitment for this upcoming season gives Canucks management more maneuverability than the absolute zero they were looking for before the acquisition window opened.

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Does this move make sense for Vancouver?

Given that Ekman-Larsson’s performances had waned to the point that the club’s overall defensive standard had risen dramatically following his departure from the line-up late in the season, the move may have been necessary.

Perhaps Aikman-Larson can return to the nifty two-legged level he showed in his first Canucks season in 2021-22, especially given his injury last summer, but it’s not easy for aging defensemen with a history of lower-body injuries simply to put lost time behind them. In a tough league like the NHL. Keeping him on the books at a cap of $7.26 million was too risky.

So yeah, given his recent play, the overall state of the club and the fact that Eckman-Larson had a full no-move clause, exercising takeover on his contract was probably the best of the bad set of options Alvin, Rutherford faced. and Canucks.

However, the key to taking this stance in favor of the Canucks is that Canucks management should avoid sticking around and allocating $7.1 million in short-term cap space that was unwisely freed up.

If the Canucks use this cap space to buy pieces at a discount from a hooded team in the offseason, to secure a passive contract while amassing liquid and meaningful assets in a trade, or to place several Dakota Joshua-style bets in the unrestricted agent market, they might This would be the beginning of the kind this club is desperate for. The benefit of a $7.1 million cut in ceiling space in one season’s final flat is arguably worth the suffering of the Ekman-Larsson buyout from a long-term perspective, provided the club makes great use of this expensive new flexibility.

However, if the club turned around and made a $4.5 million, four-year commitment for a second-caliber free agent defender, or a good-but-not-great quarterback, the Canucks would have kicked the can even further. way, lowering that club’s final cap further in favor of a marginal improvement to a permanent non-playoff team in the short term.

It’s too early to tell if this move is the beginning of something wiser and more disciplined than what came before him in the Canucks. If the club is ready to finally stop digging, we’ll know soon enough.

(Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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