Despite Rumors, Coyotes’ Ekman-Larsson Going Nowhere

As you’ve probably noticed, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes has been in the headlines a lot lately. No, the national media isn’t finally giving him the recognition he deserves as one of the league’s best defensemen – they’ve instead been busy stirring the pot on trade rumors regarding the 26-year-old blueliner. In particular, one rumor, involving the Toronto Maple Leafs and forward William Nylander, gained a ton of steam while the Coyotes were on their Eastern Canada road trip in November before general manager John Chayka publicly dismissed it as false, just as he’s done for other such rumors in the past.

Nonetheless, despite Chayka’s insistence that a deal hasn’t been discussed, rumors surrounding Ekman-Larsson’s future continue to fly. While it’s fun for fans around the league to speculate about the possibility of their team acquiring Arizona’s talented defenseman, I’ll give it to you straight – there’s no chance the Coyotes will ever move Ekman-Larsson, unless Oliver himself goes to management and directly requests a trade. Why? Well, there exist a multitude of reasons, the most straightforward of which is:

Trading Franchise Players Is Rarely a Good Idea

Put simply, it would be counter-productive to the Coyotes’ rebuild if they traded Ekman-Larsson for anything less than a king’s ransom. He’s their best defenseman by a mile and nothing the ‘Yotes could receive in return (short of an already-established star) would give them the same value that ‘OEL’ provides to the franchise.

While there have been trades involving franchise players in the past that have worked out well for the team which is parting ways with the superstar (see: Eric Lindros to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, and other key pieces of two Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup championships), many, like the Patrick Roy and Wayne Gretzky trades, end up being one-sided in the long run.

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The Montreal Canadiens did not receive much in return for Patrick Roy when they sent him to the Colorado Avalanche in Dec. 1995. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Additionally, the Coyotes already have a deep pool of young players and draft picks to work with. They really don’t need more youth on the roster, but that’s exactly what they’d receive in an Ekman-Larsson trade. This is year three of the rebuild – the Coyotes have already identified which players will be part of the future in Arizona, and OEL figures to become the next ‘Captain Coyote’ sometime soon.

Instead of trading Ekman-Larsson to a contender, the Coyotes need to become contenders themselves so that OEL can reach his full potential with the team that drafted him. During the 2015-16 season, Ekman-Larsson’s abilities were on full display for the world to see night in and night out. Led by exciting rookies like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair as well as veterans like Shane Doan, Mikkel Boedker, Antoine Vermette, and Martin Hanzal, that season’s Coyotes were a highly-competitive bunch. As late as January, the ‘Yotes found themselves in a playoff spot. However, a late-season slide resulted in a playoff miss and a 10th-place finish in the Western Conference.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson Coyotes
Oliver Ekman-Larsson. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite Arizona’s failure to qualify for the playoffs, Ekman-Larsson enjoyed an outstanding individual campaign that season. He led the ‘Yotes in scoring with 55 points and finished behind only Brent Burns in goals among defensemen with 21. His 12 power play goals also ranked second at his position, as did his total of 27 power play points. The Coyotes have gotten considerably worse as a team since then, though, and Ekman-Larsson’s production has decreased along with Arizona’s team scoring output.

Even with Arizona’s struggles this year (30th in the NHL in goals per game), OEL is still on pace for 15 goals and 30 assists – numbers that 99% of defensemen in the league would be happy to finish a season with. If the Coyotes are able to put a competitive team on the ice next season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ekman-Larsson exceed the 60-point plateau and become a household name across the United States and Canada.

What About the Finances?

One of the reasons that Ekman-Larsson’s name continues to be floated in trade rumors is the belief that the Coyotes and owner Andrew Barroway will not have the financial resources necessary to re-sign OEL when he becomes a free agent next summer. However, as our peers over at Five For Howling pointed out earlier in December, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson Coyotes
Oliver Ekman-Larsson scores an overtime goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on Oct. 15, 2016, at Gila River Arena. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

A look at the Coyotes’ salary cap information reveals that the franchise will have $2,666,667 in dead money coming off of the books in the next two seasons. The $1.25 million cap hit from the Antoine Vermette buyout will come off at the end of this season, while the approximate $1.42 million in retained salary from the Mike Smith trade will come off at the end the 2018-19 season. The contract of the injured Dave Bolland will also expire at the end of next season, giving Chayka additional flexibility to work with.

John Chayka Coyotes
Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka.

In essence, the Coyotes will have the ability to give Ekman-Larsson a near-$3 million per year raise on his next contract without increasing their cap number by any significant amount. With his current $5.5 million cap hit in mind, it appears as if the Coyotes can afford to fork out upwards of $8 million per season in order to keep their superstar.

Ekman-Larsson Comparables?

Now that we’ve established that the Coyotes will indeed have the money to re-sign their all-world defenseman, let’s take a look at the contracts that comparable players in the league have signed over the past few seasons, as a basis for what Ekman-Larsson may receive in a potential contract extension.

Another Successful Swede

We’ll start with Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. Hedman and Ekman-Larsson, who were teammates in both the 2016 World Cup of Hockey as well as the 2017 IIHF World Championship for Team Sweden, are widely regarded as two of the league’s best young all-around defensemen, and a quick look at the statistics does nothing to disprove that belief. The soon-to-be 27-year-old Hedman has posted 318 points (67 goals, 252 assists) in 579 games with the Lightning, while the 26-year-old Ekman-Larsson has recorded 266 points (94 goals, 172 assists) in 527 career NHL contests in Arizona.

Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Along with their career numbers, Ekman-Larsson and Hedman are similar in that they’ve played their entire careers in non-traditional markets. Despite the fact that the Lightning have enjoyed a high degree of team success in recent years, Hedman has struggled to gain the attention of the voting hockey media. As a result, the Lightning blueliner finished a distant third behind Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson in the Norris Trophy voting last season despite finishing with one more point than Karlsson and nine more assists than Burns.

This is a problem similar to the one Ekman-Larsson has in Arizona – the Coyotes seem to be in the local, national, and international conversation only when something bad happens, so OEL receives little positive fanfare during a typical season. Consequently, Ekman-Larsson has also struggled with Norris Trophy voters – despite leading all defensemen in goals with 23 in 2014-15, Ekman-Larsson finished 17th in the voting. OEL wasn’t recognized for his outstanding 2015-16 season, either – he finished ninth in the Norris voting despite leading the Coyotes in scoring during his stellar 55-point campaign.

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At any rate, after seven productive seasons in Tampa Bay, Hedman signed an eight-year, $63 million contract extension with the Lightning last July. His $7.875 million cap hit is the third-highest among defensemen in the NHL. As discussed above, Hedman’s deal is a good comparable to a potential Ekman-Larsson contract extension because he’s similar to the ‘Yotes blueliner in age, production, and on-ice role. Unlike other players with similar cap hits (Shea Weber, for example), Hedman is also a good comparison based on the fact that his extension was signed within the last two seasons – his contract is indicative of how the league pays its top defensemen under the current CBA.

A Star in San Jose

Another extremely productive offensive defenseman who signed a monster contract extension recently is Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks. Put simply, ‘Burnzie’ has been a freak of nature since arriving in San Jose – since the start of the 2011-12 season, he leads all NHL defensemen in goals with 119 and trails only Karlsson in points with 334 in 455 games. There’s no doubt that Burns is one of the NHL’s premier blueliners, and the Sharks are paying him as such – on Nov. 22, 2016, the organization inked the then-31-year-old to an eight-year, $64 million contract extension, all but guaranteeing that their franchise defenseman will finish his career in San Jose.

Brent Burns
Brent Burns (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

While Burns and Ekman-Larsson are separated by a six-year age gap, the two players still compare favorably to one another. Burns was 26 years old when he was traded to San Jose and had recorded 183 points in 453 games during his seven prior seasons with the Minnesota Wild. Ekman-Larsson is 26 now, and posted 248 points in 494 games in seven seasons prior to the current campaign. Burns didn’t truly become the dominant player he is now until his age-29 season when he posted 60 points for the Sharks during the 2014-15 season. He’s been even better over his last two campaigns, as he racked up 75 and 76 points, respectively, and won his first Norris Trophy last season as a 32-year-old.

Could Ekman-Larsson achieve a mid-career breakthrough similar to the one Burns experienced in San Jose? If general manager John Chayka and owner Andrew Barroway can manage to build a competitive team around their star defenseman, the answer very easily could be ‘yes’. Ekman-Larsson has all the tools necessary to win multiple Norris trophies – the Coyotes just need to make sure he does so in Arizona.