Last season, the Arizona Coyotes, who finished their year with dismal offense and a 29th place standing in the league, saw then-23-year-old defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson set a record among goals scored by Swedish blue liners.
He scored 23 that year, and this year, he’s up to 19 in 66 games. He’s sat out with injury since just after the 2016 trade deadline, or he could currently have met his total from last year; there’s even the chance he could have surpassed it.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a power play quarterback, a secondary scoring menace (some could even call him a primary scoring menace, just from the blue line), and only 24 years old. The assumption, at this point, is that he’s only going to get better.
So why is there speculation that the Coyotes could use him to get their hands on 2016 first overall pick, Auston Matthews?
In theory, the idea of Auston Matthews coming to Arizona to help ‘save the franchise’ is a great one. A locally raised native of Scottsdale, Arizona, Matthews will be just the second-ever product of the Arizona hockey system to get drafted in the NHL in the first round, the other is Henrik Samuelsson.
Hopefully, he’ll get drafted by his hometown team, too – and they’ll have both one of the best prospective centers in the league and a homegrown talent to show off as a marketing tool. For a team that has sat perennially in the bottom of the league in attendance post-bankruptcy scandal, that would be a highly attractive option.
The only problem, of course, is that the Coyotes aren’t currently in the bottom three in the league, which would give them the best odds of winning the lottery to pick first overall. Even if they were, no one bets against the Edmonton Oilers at the lottery, anyway.
That would make the acquisition of Matthews something that would have to come at a price, and according to Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, that price might have to include Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
In theory, this seems like an idea that – even if it’s a bit on the extreme side – a desperate franchise would consider.
The Coyotes have seen their attendance stagnate in the last few years, hovering somewhere between 75 and 80% capacity in one of the smaller arenas in the league to begin with. They’re under new ownership, with great new marketing campaigns and tons of youth incentives, but children won’t be able to pay their way through the door for another handful of years, so the waiting game has been hard in the desert. Seeing a homegrown talent on the team could change that, even if it comes at a huge cost.
Upon closer inspection, though, the idea isn’t just flawed thinking – it’s franchise-ruining thinking, and therefore likely won’t happen.
Outside of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the next-best option on defense is an inexperienced 22-year-old Connor Murphy. He’s then followed by defensive defenseman Michael Stone, veterans Nicklas Grossmann and Zbynek Michalek (neither of whom have much speed or any kind of possession analytics on their side), a hard-to-decipher but struggling Klas Dahlbeck, and then Jarred Tinordi, and Kevin Connauton.
Connauton is a waiver pick-up, while Tinordi is currently serving a 20-game suspension for PED usage. The Coyotes don’t have much in the way of defense outside of a very good Ekman-Larsson, and they likely know it.
The only way to justify a trade that would send out Ekman-Larsson for Matthews, outside of the marketing argument, would be to see another defenseman come back.
Spector suggested that maybe the Oilers would send Oscar Klefbom or Darnell Nurse; while neither of these have the same numbers as Ekman-Larsson to support this being a worthwhile move, it would at least staunch the bleeding a bit.
That move would be poor for the Oilers, though, as well. Edmonton, for that matter, most of the teams in the bottom ten in the league right now, need to improve their defense. Blue line help often takes longer to develop than offensive help, and teams are less likely to trade away franchise first-pairing defensemen than they are good forwards. Most of the teams in the bottom of the league, Edmonton included, need to add to their blue line.
Swapping blue liners wouldn’t solve the problem, although any bottom team would get better with the addition of Ekman-Larsson almost immediately.
For Arizona, that move leaves them with one of the weakest blue lines in the league – but a very good offense. If they only gave up Ekman-Larsson, they’d be left with Matthews, Dylan Strome, and Christian Dvorak down the middle, not to mention a veteran Martin Hanzal. On the wings, they’d have Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Tobias Rieder, Brendan Perlini, Conor Garland, Christian Fischer, and Jordan Martinook.
That’s a world-class offense, no doubt.
The blue line behind it, though, would be just a step above replacement level – if even that. The Coyotes would fall prey to what the Oilers have struggled with for the last decade; great, young offense, but no defense to speak of. It hurts the goaltending, which leaves a team hoping for high-event games where they outscore their problems. That’s a tough recipe for playoff success now that the 80’s are over.
Of course, this could be wrong. The Coyotes could be so desperate to see a homegrown talent as the face of all their billboards that they’d be willing to set back their own rebuild by another five or six years to get him.
There’s no guarantee that the team wouldn’t do that; after all, teams have done crazier things when looking to turn things around.
Looking at it logically, though, Ekman-Larsson could very well be a generational talent at his own position. He could be a Norris candidate in a few years; he’s already a true number one defenseman, and he could be one of the best five in the league before long.
You don’t trade that for another center in an already-strong offensive class. Not if you want to win.