The Oliver Ekman-Larsson signing might take some getting used to but has some merit

Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
11 days ago
Brad Treliving hasn’t done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt from Maple Leafs fans. And I will admit to having a negative reaction to the Oliver Ekman-Larsson signing when I first saw it. This is a player that had fallen from grace so much in Arizona that the Coyotes were willing to eat me on a deal to get rid of him and the buyout from the Canucks will see OEL drawing money from Vancouver, Arizona, as well as Toronto next season. These are certainly red flags on a 32 year old defenceman who seemed like he played his best hockey half a decade.
Something began to change my perception and thanks to the contracts for former Leafs like TJ Brodie ($3.75M AAV), Joel Edmundson ($3.85 AAV), and Ilya Lyubushkin ($3.25 AAV) the $3.5M AAV hit for Ekman-Larsson seemed less awful and more like a modest bump based on his strong season in Florida that paid him $2.25 AAV. While I’m not sure that Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a difference maker on the blueline he feels like a way of dodging some of the worst bullets in free agency and for Toronto to have a reasonable 4th/5th defenceman on their depth chart.
Some interesting things immediately stand out when looking at Ekman-Larsson’s numbers. Last season was his best in the past four years, and that came from him taking on a 5th defenceman role on the Florida Panthers. It seems likely the Leafs will push him in the direction of being a 4D, but with Rielly and McCabe ahead of him, he might be able to take on this role for Toronto. Ekman-Larsson also had a very serviceable year on a bad Vancouver team before going off the rails in his second season there. The interesting common denominator between that bad year in Vancouver and his decline in Arizona is that Rick Tocchet was the head coach. OEL may be still a perfectly fine defenceman but not one that works in a Rick Tocchet system. How OEL fits with Berube remains to be seen, but it’s nice that Tocchet has provided the Leafs with a clear “what not to do” example.
OEL’s time in Florida did see him used as a third pairing defenceman with a strong partner in Kulikov and for the most Ekman-Larsson’s relative performance to the rest of the Panthers blueline hovered around the middle of the road. There is some slight concern about the increased number of high danger shot attempts compared to the rest of the blueline and given that high danger areas are already a concern for the Leafs blueline, OEL might struggle, but his performance was genuinely solid.
While Kulikov was Ekman-Larsson’s primary partner throughout the season, Ekblad’s injury opened the door for OEL to play in the top four and that was most frequently with Gustav Forsling. The increased quality of competition certainly shows a dip in his numbers even alongside a better partner in Forsling, but nothing was alarming at all with any of his frequent partners. Expecting Oliver Ekman-Larsson to continue this success outside of Florida with a team that isn’t built as strong defensively throughout their lineup including forwards is a big ask, but expecting Ekman-Larsson to be an upgrade over what the Leafs had on their blueline last season is reasonable.
The Panthers deployed Ekman-Larsson fairly evenly among all competition, thanks largely to the Ekblad injury which likely increased his top and second line competition. While the numbers certainly support using OEL further down in the defensive pairings and ideally as a third pairing option, Ekman-Larsson is reliable depth that can be called on to move up the lineup as injuries force the Leafs hand. I’m not sure this will be considered a favourable comparison, but he can fill the Justin Holl role being a good third pairing guy that doesn’t completely nuke the defence when being called upon to do more for short periods of time. Maybe 2022-23 Mark Giordano is friendly comparison.
That brings us to where Ekman-Larsson fits into the Leafs lineup. I think the third pairing is the likely landing place but additionally the Panthers deployed OEL on their second unit powerplay and he was their fifth option on the penalty kill for defencemen which likely means he’ll see some but not a ton of work there. I’d assume the Leafs might be more eager to try him as a regular in that spot than Timothy Liljegren, but with a new coach it’s important to remember all options are on the table rather than the set Keefe line templates.
Playing with Kulikov and playing well with him opens up some consideration that the Leafs might want to try Ekman-Larsson with a more physical defensive partner like Hakanpaa or Benoit to start. Given that OEL and Benoit are both better on the left side, I’d assume that Hakanpaa would be the preferred option.
Of course, the Leafs might see McCabe and either Benoit or Hakanpaa as an ideal shutdown option and instead try to tap into the idea of OEL and Liljegren playing together. Both pairings would look solid but likely require actively deploying them at the most appropriate times to maximize their benefit as the OEL/Liljegren duo would be primarily focused on moving the puck up ice rather than the blockade option with McCabe. There’s plenty of time to figure all of this out as it’s only July 2nd and there are no guarantees that personnel the Leafs have today will be the group that arrives at camp in September.
A big part of accepting the Oliver Ekman-Larsson contract is the phrase “don’t worry, the cap is going up.” There are intangible benefits of having established veterans with new coaches and guys who have experienced winning in the locker room, as well as someone who his very well known to former Coyotes Brad Treliving and Shane Doan. All of that doesn’t change that stepping up for a couple million dollars more would have landed Brett Pesce. Or Brendon Dillon signing for $4M hurts when he could have brought a bit more toughness to the Leafs back end. Sean Walker and Alexandre Carrier at similar prices to Oliver Ekman-Larsson sting too, but the prices they signed for are not necessarily what it would have cost the Leafs to get them. You can just as easily point to a number of contracts that the Leafs were lucky to avoid.
In short, the John Klingberg signing this is not. Ekman-Larsson might not be the answer to all of the Leafs defensive needs but comparatively to other Treliving defensive acquisitions he’s a step up from everyone but Tanev. He will hit when needed. He can skate still and his shot isn’t half bad. At 6’2 he can even count as adding size on the back end. Even if you aren’t excited about him, he’s worth giving a chance to.
Data sourced from Natural Stat Trick and PuckIQ

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