How good is Coyotes trade rumor magnet Oliver Ekman-Larsson, really?

How good is Coyotes trade rumor magnet Oliver Ekman-Larsson, really?
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For those who at least know who Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is, the next question is: “How good is OEL?” Is OEL worth all the fuss amid rumors that teams like the Bruins and Canucks might be interested?

That might depend upon who you ask.

Let’s go over Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract, stats (both fancy and traditional), and the perceptions about his game. Will they make it any easier to decide if OEL is worth all of the trade rumors and attention? Well, hopefully … but as important as NHL defensemen are, they can also be tough nuts to crack.

The inherent risks of trading for an aging defenseman on a big contract

Oliver Ekman-Larsson turned 29 on July 17. The Swedish defenseman played in 723 regular-season games with the Coyotes, while appearing in only 25 career playoff contests.

That 29-year-old age will scare you or produce a shoulder shrug depending upon your view of the aging curve. (For me? Yeah, I’d be frightened. Hockey Graphs noted in 2017 that NHL players peak between ages 23-27, and things can start to get ugly when they enter their 30’s.)

However you feel about OEL’s age, his contract isn’t cheap. Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s contract carries a robust $8.25M cap hit through 2026-27, with no-movement clauses throughout. Whether it’s the Coyotes or a team like the Bruins or Canucks, chances are, it could be very hard to trade OEL as time goes on.

The current NHL economic climate makes trading for OEL even riskier

And the NHL’s current economic realities make OEL’s contract an even bigger risk. Mostly.

A contending team trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson would need to cross its fingers that most of the worst COVID-related money impacts end up being contained to 2020-21. The Coyotes (eventually) already paid OEL’s $4M signing bonus, so his team would only be on the hook for $4M for 2020-21. Unfortunately, that’s the only short-term good news about the contract.

The very bad news is that extremely expensive days are coming up.

OEL’s total annual salary is slated at $10.5M from 2021-22 through 2023-24. In 2024-25, it’s also pricey at $8M. Then, it gets quite trade-friendly, as his salary ($5.25M) is much lower than that $8.25M cap hit.

So, Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s biggest paydays come during periods of serious financial uncertainty for the NHL. Maybe a big market team like the Boston Bruins don’t care, but what if the global pandemic throws all sorts of revenues for a loop, and for multiple seasons?

Teams have to ask themselves that question about any move going forward, yet especially with a premium-priced defenseman like OEL. Especially since, well, it’s fair to wonder if OEL is still a premium defenseman.

Most stats point to a troubling decline for Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Whether you look at traditional stats or “fancy,” advanced ones, it’s clear that OEL’s numbers slipped.

Granted, it’s easier to talk yourself into trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson if you look at the usual offensive numbers. While he may never flirt with a legitimately Norris-caliber 2015-16 season (21 goals, 55 points, bonkers possession numbers), OEL still scores, generating nine goals and 30 points in 66 games. That point-every-other-game-or-so pace doesn’t scream “$8.25M defenseman,” but it’s likely more soothing to old-school types. Consider that, since 2013-14, Ekman-Larsson ranked 16th among defensemen in points (297) and third in goals (108). You won’t find a ton of defensemen with two 20+ goal seasons to their name, but OEL is one of them.

Again, though, you’re paying and/or trading for what Oliver Ekman-Larsson will do, not what he already accomplished. That’s where recent slippage is worrisome.

Taking a more complete look at his game, consider how Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s RAPM chart for his lofty 2013-2016 years look (via Evolving Hockey):

Oliver Ekman-Larsson RAPM 1
RAPM chart via Evolving Hockey

Compared to his more modest recent seasons:

Oliver Ekman-Larsson RAPM 2
RAPM Chart via Evolving Hockey

For the most part, people aren’t condemning Oliver Ekman-Larsson as a “bad” defenseman who no team should trade for.

Instead, the questions revolve around whether he’s worth giving up real assets for in a trade, and just how toxic OEL’s contract looks. It’s tough to beat up on the Coyotes too much for signing a player closer to when he was legitimately elite, but it’s possible that those elite days are in his past.

It’s slightly puzzling that the Bruins would give up assets and pay big money for OEL, and not just use that money to bring back Torey Krug:

SKATR OEL - Krug
SKATR chart via Bill Comeau

Unless the Coyotes retained OEL’s contract, or took on someone else’s (cheaper) problem(s), I’m not sure that trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson is worth the risk. Some do, though.

NHL staffers seem on board with trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Arizona Coyotes Insider’s Craig Morgan provided a great look at how people around the NHL view trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Broadly speaking, the “eight independent voices” didn’t seem overly concerned about OEL’s age.

“I don’t think life stops at 29 and 30,” A league source told Morgan. “We’ve got this narrative that once you’re 27 you’re on the downside of your career. Not everybody is the same. It depends how much hockey you have played, what’s your injury history and how hard have the miles been, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to theory that once you turn 30 the hourglass starts on the end of your career. I still think there’s lot of hockey left in Oliver.”

[MORE: Trade market “intensifying” for Oliver Ekman-Larsson]

There’s optimism about how a change of scenery may benefit OEL’s game. Indeed, there does seem to be some fire to go with all the smoke about Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s style not mixing well with Rick Tocchet’s coaching.

All of that said, it’s pretty dangerous to project improvement on a player when you’re trading for them, at least when that player a) carries a huge contract and b) will probably cost you significant assets. What if Oliver Ekman-Larsson is what he is?

Which, lately, has been: a good defenseman (sometimes quite good, sometimes just OK) making the money of a truly elite one? Should you really talking yourself into trading for a player whose top contract comparables are John Carlson, Roman Josi, and Victor Hedman?

Closing thoughts on Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s trade value

For every person wondering if trading for Oliver Ekman-Larsson would be worth the risk, there are some who are empathic about it. That goes for both sides of analytics vs. old-school debates. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis warmed up to the idea (sub required), while Brian Burke didn’t seem too keen on the Canucks adding him.

Personally, it boils down to mitigating risks.

Will the Coyotes, as cash-challenged as they are, be willing to retain some of OEL’s contract in a trade? If not, would they take on a smaller contract, particularly one that also has some term? What kind of trade package would the Coyotes accept, realizing that their partner likely knows that Arizona needs to shed salary as much as possible?

It all sounds very risky, but could be a lot of fun to watch. Hey, at least we’re not the ones signing the checks, right? (Unless you’re an NHL owner. *waves*)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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