The acceptable part of having a problem is admitting you have one.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson knows he hasn’t been good enough for a number of years in a National Hockey League career spanning 11 seasons and 769 games in the desert. To his credit, he isn’t stickhandling around the shortcomings or the polarizing public perception that his best days may be in the rear-view mirror.
He vows to return to a higher and more consistent performance level after being acquired by the Vancouver Canucks in a blockbuster trade Friday. Thats great, but it’s not going to be easy.
As a projected top-pairing defender, who will see plenty of Pacific Division matchups against the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, he needs to turn back the competitive clock. Five years ago, he was good with and without the puck and merited Norris Trophy consideration.
Now, it’s fair wonder. What’s left in the tank of the sixth-overall selection in the 2009 draft?
“He’s got a lot, and plays an overall game,” Swedish countryman Daniel Sedin suggested in a radio interview on Saturday. “The main thing is he’s a professional and a leader and will be so good for Quinn (Hughes) and (Jack) Rathbone. It’s not about him, it’s about the team. He brings what you want.
“He takes full responsibility for the last couple of years and he loves the pressure of being the guy. I think he’s up for the challenge.”
Ekman-Larsson, 30, is the controversial side of the big swap with the Arizona Coyotes that addressed current positional needs, because of his expected role and US$7.26 million annual salary cap hit for the next six seasons. The Canucks also acquired top-six winger Conor Garland in exchange for salary cap relief by moving the bottom-six contracts of Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel.
However, they also surrendered their first-round pick in 2021, a second-rounder in 2022 and a seventh-rounder in 2023. Then again, Ekman-Larsson has long been on the Canucks’ radar, and playing under that uncertainty in Arizona wasn’t easy.
“It was (hard), I’m not going to lie,” Ekman-Larsson said Saturday during a Zoom call from Sweden. “But it comes down to playing good hockey, and I haven’t been able to do that lately, when rumours start and people start talking about trades and stuff. I’m the first to admit I haven’t been good enough. I’m always going to look in the mirror first, rather than blame it on anybody else.
“It’s been crazy, but I’m super excited to be in Vancouver and what’s ahead of us. A little bit of a relief, too, in talking about this (trade) for a year now, and I kind of felt we were running out of time last year. But I’m happy. New start and a fresh start.”
Ekman-Larsson’s average ice time was down to 20:58 last season, compared to 23:01, 23:08 and 23:41 in the previous three. That was a function of being in the second pairing behind Jakob Chychrun and Alex Goligoski on a club that struggled to defend and score.
Ekman-Larsson had 24 points (3-21) in 46 games last season and seems far removed from a career best 55 points (21-34) in 2015-16. But he had 42- and 44-point seasons before a big slide the past two.
So, what has gone awry? Is it reading the game, body and stick position or moving the puck?
“All of that, and I felt I’ve struggled the last four years, and before the going was great,” he said. “You always go through times like that, but it’s the way you get out of it and learn from it. And I feel I’ve been doing that. It’s a game of detail and a fast game.
“It’s getting back to being happy and feeling good about myself and having the confidence. I know I’m a good player and can play top minutes. It’s a matter of getting back to that. I’m comfortable that I can help a lot. I’m still young and have a lot of hockey left in me. I’ve been working out more and smarter, and that’s helping a lot.”
And if he needs an ear, Canucks’ special advisers Henrik and Daniel Sedin are always there for discussions or directions.
“Great guys and a big part of the Canucks, and having them here helps me a lot,” admitted Ekman-Larsson. “They know it all and they did it all. We’re lucky to have them.”
Like Daniel Sedin, general manager Jim Benning is banking on the trickle-down effect of Ekman-Larsson finding his game and taking pressure off Hughes.
“(Hughes) can play now in a different kind of role,” said Benning. “He doesn’t have to play against the other team’s top lines and stuff. So, I just think it puts everybody in their place where they should be playing, and it makes our team better.”
However, Benning still has right-side questions to solve.
Ekman-Larsson could pair with Nate Schmidt, but the disgruntled defender could be dealt. Hughes had symmetry with Travis Hamonic, but the unrestricted free agent is still without a new deal. Rathbone and Tyler Myers could form the only intact tandem.