SUNRISE, FLA. — When the Vancouver Canucks opted to buy out Oliver Ekman-Larsson — exercising the largest total value compliance buyout in the history of the NHL salary cap system — it came as a shock to the veteran defender.
“I was surprised,” Ekman-Larsson said in an interview with The Athletic following Florida Panthers practice on Friday afternoon. “We had exit meetings, and I didn’t see it coming.”
Ekman-Larsson hadn’t played since February, when he fractured his foot for the second time in 12 months. The first injury, which occurred at the 2022 World Championship, had lingered throughout the summer and into the season. Ekman-Larsson’s mobility was compromised. He lost confidence, struggled and was enormously critical of his own performance throughout his final Canucks season.
Still, when the season ended and the conversations with Canucks management and head coach Rick Tocchet turned to the summer, the tone was one of moving forward, looking ahead and planning. Ekman-Larsson didn’t see the buyout coming.
“Look, we loved living in Vancouver and I loved playing for the Canucks,” Ekman-Larsson said. “So it was disappointing. Obviously there were a couple of tough years, but I don’t feel like it was all bad like everybody else does.
“There were ups and downs and we didn’t make the playoffs, we were struggling as a team, there were a lot of changes,” he continued. “It wasn’t easy, but I don’t have a bad thing to say about the city of Vancouver or the organization. It’s just part of the business. You get disappointed when things like that happen and you’re not ready for it.
“We were just talking about next season like we always do. My focus was just like every other year — although last year was a little bit different with my foot injury — I’ve had a long time to prepare for this season, but bottom line, I didn’t see it coming.”
The buyout was a significant blow to Ekman-Larsson, both to his pride as a player and his own personal bottom line. This is a player who’d used his no-move clause to select Vancouver (and Boston) on a shortlist of teams he’d be willing to get dealt to. He wanted to be a Canuck, and he adopted the city as his home long-term. And then suddenly — and without warning — he was a free agent.
“You soak it in,” Ekman-Larsson said. “You reflect on your time there and your play and everything. Then you go out and try to be a better player.
“You try not to read too deep into it. It’s easy to put a little bit too much on yourself and I’m a guy that cares a lot, wants to make everybody happy and please everybody, so you go over things and then after you look at yourself in the mirror, you try and take the positive out of it.
“You’re disappointed, and look, you want the answers. Then you move on and look for a new opportunity, and I found a good fit.
One thing Ekman-Larsson wanted to make clear over the course of a lengthy discussion on Friday afternoon, is that he doesn’t blame Tocchet for what occurred.
Tocchet and Ekman-Larsson go way back; Tocchet coached Ekman-Larsson for four seasons during their time with the Arizona Coyotes. Given that familiarity, how it ended for Ekman-Larsson in slow motion during his final Coyotes season, and the rumours that Tocchet and Ekman-Larsson had clashed in their previous shared tenure in the desert, it was easy to wonder if the Canucks hiring the former Coyotes bench boss had played a role in their decision to exercise the buyout.
“I don’t blame it on Tocc at all,” Ekman-Larsson said on Friday. “He came in and did a hell of a job last year getting everyone pulling in the right direction.
“I think the coaching staff Vancouver has, I can’t say enough job things about them. Tocc was great to me last year when he came in, and (Sergei Gonchar) — he was only there a little bit, but he seemed really good as well — so I don’t think it’s Tocc’s fault that I struggled, or that what happened, happened. I don’t want to put that on him.
“He’s a great man and we never had any issues really. We were hard on each other, but you don’t always have to agree on stuff. I loved his honesty. Sometimes I’d tell him how I felt in certain ways, and he was the same. I have a lot of respect for him and I think he’s a good coach.”
As Ekman-Larsson turned the blow of being bought out into fuel this summer, he was also able to take the time to really rehab from his multiple foot injuries.
“Having a healthy summer means a lot,” he said. “I don’t like to make excuses. Going into last season maybe I could’ve done different things to switch some things up, but that’s easy to say now. Bottom line: You want to play, no matter what.
“This summer, and shutting it down in February as opposed to playing through it, I had a long time to recover. It took a while. Two fractures in the same foot over two seasons, it takes time. It takes time to heal and I look at it as a good thing that I got a lot of time this offseason — including part of last year — to get it going and take care of it.”
And he was able to take his time and select the right fit to move forward with his playing career. Ultimately he landed with a Panthers team dealing with significant early season injuries on their blue line to star defenders Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour. In Florida, Ekman-Larsson has found a chance to win and a chance to play a massive role in the early going.
“I’m in a different position now in my career and I want to win, that’s the bottom line,” Ekman-Larsson says. “I thought Florida was a good fit. I tried to look at everything and look at all the pieces of the puzzle. It was hard, but I thought Florida was a good fit — lot of good players, lot of talent and a lot of players that want to win. The first month and a bit have been really fun here, the guys have been great.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be put in, but every guy that was here last year and has been here for a bit now, they helped a lot. Everybody here is buying in, and I can only talk for myself, but a lot of guys on this back-end feel the same way.”
The Panthers have become one of the best teams in hockey, and in particular, have seemed to excel at identifying blueliners to plug into their lineup to enhance their team. From deadline acquisitions like Montour, to free agents like Radko Gudas, to waiver claims like Gustav Forsling and Josh Mahura, it’s clear that the Panthers have the infrastructure to plug and play various defenders into their uptempo system.
That’s a strength that’s come into play in a major way early in the year, as the Panthers have had to integrate Ekman-Larsson — and a variety of other new faces — in an effort to remain competitive without their two most important blueliners in the lineup early in the year.
“There’s been a lot of talk about what they expect,” says Ekman-Larsson of how the Panthers have approached this challenge. “A lot of talk about how they want us to play and it makes it easy to know that. You know how you’re going to defend and how you’re going to move the puck in different situations. Getting to know the guys and building chemistry takes time, but that part takes care of itself because you spend so much time together.
“But I think the way we play benefits everybody in this room. I don’t want to use the word “easy,” but I think everybody knows what’s expected and everyone is bought in. Over the month and a half I’ve been there it seems like everyone knows that when you don’t have the puck, you get back. The forwards forecheck hard, so that makes it easier on the defenders to gap up. If you get burned there’s two guys helping back. That’s what I love about playing here, everyone looks after each other. If someone screws up or whatever — and it’s going to happen — here’s the next guy helping out.”
As the Panthers have sorted through and integrated new players like Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola, Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Reilly, and dealt with the challenges of playing with no right-handed shooters on the back-end, it’s been Ekman-Larsson who they’ve turned to in shouldering the biggest-minutes burden.
In fact, through the first 10 days of the NHL season, Ekman-Larsson ranks third among all NHL defenders in ice time per game — behind only Drew Doughty and Mike Matheson.
“It’s a lot of fun!” Ekman-Larsson laughs of the big minutes he’s getting. “And I feel great. Whether you had a good shift or made a mistake, you’re right back out there. In some ways it’s easier.”
While Ekman-Larsson is focused on working to help the Panthers stay afloat in tough circumstances early in the year, it’s clear that Saturday will be a lot to process with his former side coming into Amerant Bank Arena. When I asked him point blank why he thinks the Canucks have had such a difficult time levelling up as a team and getting to that next level, he indicated that he remains in touch with various Canucks teammates — and even reached out to Canucks forward Brock Boeser to congratulate him after Boeser opened the season with a big four-goal game in Vancouver’s home opener.
“Honestly, I wish I had an answer. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be standing here now!” Ekman-Larsson said of his perspective on why the Canucks have been so listless for so many years running.
“You look at Petey though, and he’s been growing a lot on and off the ice. Quinn is the same way. Miller is a great player, he’s putting up points and battling. There’s a lot of talent, but I think it takes time to build that culture.”
“Anyway, it’s weird to play against your old teammates,” he continued. “It’s going to be an easy game to get up for and it’s going to be fun to battle. I’ve been battling with those guys in practices for two years. There’s been some tough battles and you build chemistry. I still talk to a few of them and I’m excited to see all of them.
“At the end of the day, though, it’s a business,” Ekman-Larsson said with a smile. “I’m not mad at anybody, I’m just disappointed with the way it turned out. And I wish them all the best — just not tomorrow.”
(Top photo: Rich Schultz / Getty Images)