Breaking Down the Oliver Ekman-Larsson Trade Using Analytics
The Canucks are taking a massive risk on a pricey defenceman coming off several poor seasons.
Vancouver receives: LD Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($0.99M retained), RW Conor Garland
Arizona receives: 2021 9th overall pick, 2022 2nd round pick, 2023 7th round pick, LW Antoine Roussel, C Jay Beagle, RW Loui Eriksson
A word I’ve been using a lot lately to describe trades is “gamble.” The Oilers acquiring Duncan Keith is a gamble, hoping that a new environment and fewer minutes can turn around his game despite his age and recent performance. Philadelphia’s trade for Rasmus Ristolainen yesterday was just that, paying huge assets in the hope that his demonstrably awful track record is a product of his environment. But while the consequences for those moves going south might be painful in the short term, both of those deals are off the books in the next two years.
Not Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s.
Ekman-Larsson is a player who got a lot of well-deserved attention early in his career for a combination of impressive goalscoring, strong production, and steady two-way play. He was considered one of the league’s top puck-movers, a rock singlehandedly guiding the Coyotes’ dysfunctional blueline, and rightfully so. But he very much has not been that in the past three seasons. This year he ranked last among all 130 defencemen who played 700+ 5v5 minutes in expected goals for percentage and was an anchor bringing down the results of everybody he played with. While OEL used to be a big tough minute guy, Arizona’s coaching staff appropriately demoted him to the second pair behind Jakob Chychrun and softened his matchups considerably this season, with (clearly) no positive impact on his results.
Blaming Ekman-Larsson’s circumstances for his poor results doesn’t really hold water considering that the Coyotes have been decent in the past two seasons relative to how they performed when OEL was elite, and of course that Jakob Chychrun got Norris votes playing in the exact same spot that Ekman-Larsson previously occupied. In fact, at his peak Ekman-Larsson was the perfect example of a player who put up elite results on a bad team - in 2015-16 he led all defencemen in Wins Above Replacement while playing for a 35-win team.
Figuring out the actual process behind his decline is a bit trickier than just blaming the Coyotes. One red flag has been his increased reliance on chip-outs to get the puck out of the zone instead of controlled exits like passes or carries according to Corey Sznajder’s manually tracked microstats.
Development coach and friend of the newsletter Jack Han also identifies defensive skating as a real issue for him:
Those two factors combined push Oliver Ekman-Larsson into the defensive end and keep him there. Like the Coyotes as a whole, OEL gave up a lot off the rush last season as he was frequently caught up-ice and unable to recover properly.
Finally, OEL’s biggest problem offensively is the concentration of his team’s shots that came from perimeter areas when he was on the ice. Ekman-Larsson ranked third-last in the NHL in terms of the average danger of shots taken when he was on the ice, a sign that he was failing to help his team attack off the rush.
All that adds up to three consecutive poor seasons for a 30 year old defenceman. We know that on average defencemen tend to decline at this point in their careers, not exactly an encouraging sign for a contract that - even at the retained rate - projects as the third-worst in the league.
So here’s the gamble: can he turn it around in Vancouver? It’s obviously possible, because it’s hockey and everything is possible. But I don’t think it’s likely.
According to SportLogiq, the Coyotes were one of the worst teams both at generating scoring chances for and preventing them against off the rush, ranking 29th and 30th respectively. The Canucks ranked dead last in both categories. Everything that made OEL vulnerable in Arizona, including their three-forwards-deep cycle-heavy style, is even more present in Vancouver, and unless new assistant coach Brad Shaw is able to install a huge systems change it’s easy to imagine Ekman-Larsson getting just as if not more victimized off the rush.
On top of that, the last two big-ticket defenders the Canucks acquired have seen their transition numbers collapse upon arrival; they chip the move out a lot more and move it a lot less.
With Ekman-Larsson’s break-out ability already seeming to be in terminal decline, that’s not an encouraging sign.
So that’s Ekman-Larsson. What about Conor Garland?
Garland is a top-six sniper with a strong track record of defensive play. While his own personal shooting efficiency - how he made a name for himself - took a hit this season, he more than made up for it by becoming a much more effective passer. He led the Coyotes in both assists and chance assists (passes leading to a scoring chance), finishing 8th in the league in 5v5 primary assists per 60 minutes. From Sznajder’s tracking, only Taylor Hall, Jonathan Huberdeau, Connor McDavid, and Artemi Panarin completed high-danger passes at a higher rate than he did this season. This is a relatively recent development in his game that wasn’t really present in previous seasons but could suggest that there’s still untapped upside that could be unlocked with better linemates.
It will be interesting to see what kind of contract Garland recieves from the Canucks. EvolvingHockey, whose projections tend to be quite accurate, project a 4 year, $4.7M deal for Garland, who is a 25 year old RFA and therefore can’t really be bridged anymore. No doubt he is the most encouraging part of this deal, although some of his caché will probably be reduced by no longer being on a $750,000 steal of a contract.
In return the Canucks surrendered a valuable asset in the 9th overall pick (used to select scorer Dylan Guenther) as well as another trade chip in the 2022 2nd. The rest of the players in this deal essentially constitute Jim Benning’s rogues gallery of ill-advised forward signings.
Antoine Roussel is a fourth line winger who can still play to about even at even strength despite his propensity to take penalties.
Jay Beagle is a subreplacement fourth liner who never ever scores goals.
Loui Eriksson, who did not play enough in the 2020-21 season to receive a player card, is on a $6M deal that expires at the end of this upcoming season.
Had they not been traded yesterday, these three contracts promised to open up a combined $12M in cap space next summer, a prospect that had many Canucks fans excited for a new era freed from weighty anchor contracts. In exchanging that short-term pain to roll the dice on Ekman-Larsson, Benning has quite possibly extended the suffering sixfold instead of alleviating it.
I’ll be frank. I think this is a terrible trade for Vancouver and an easy win for Arizona. Ekman-Larsson’s presence and contract were going to loom over that franchise as they tried to turn a new leaf and build essentially from scratch, and while Garland is a valuable player, at 25 he just didn’t fit their timeline of contention. Removing OEL from the Coyotes roster literally makes them a better team right now, which isn’t exactly a great sign for the Canucks. That Arizona was able to do so without taking on any money that lasts more than one remaining year (save the sub-million they’ll be paying for the next six years) is miraculous and caps off a very impressive weekend for Bill Armstrong.
On the Canucks’ end, the victorious declaration that the team added a “top pairing defenceman” requires you to ignore a whole lot of evidence to the contrary. Whereas teams like the Flyers and Oilers can at least argue that they will be giving their new acquisition a much better circumstance, Vancouver has work to do to become an improvement on the Coyotes, especially defensively, and there’s very little reason to believe that Ekman-Larsson is going to get better as he enters his 30s. $7.26M isn’t Karlsson bad certainly, but Canucks fans know from the Eriksson contract the damage that a big long-term commitment to a declining veteran can do to a team’s construction. Combined with Tyler Myers’ three years remaining at $6M (not to mention Nate Schmidt’s four at $5.95M if he doesn’t get moved), that is a lot of money spent on 30+ defencemen through the years when history tells us they will be declining. Maybe OEL can renew his career in Vancouver and reward Jim Benning’s faith in him, but if the Canucks’ faith is misplaced this trade could hugely limit them moving forward.