To put it lightly, the Arizona Coyotes aren’t where they thought they’d be 17 games into the season.
One of the biggest movers and shakers over the summer – acquiring Antti Raanta, Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers, among others – the Coyotes started the season with an 11-game losing streak, have accumulated just six points through the first five weeks and sit at the bottom of the league with an unsightly minus-26 goal differential. All the promise of things coming together, of a rejuvenation in the desert, seems to have washed away and what’s left is an organization once again looking for answers.
As one would imagine, Arizona’s early struggles, which have seen the team’s defense shredded and goaltending picked apart, has led some to question what exactly needs to change in order for the Coyotes to start heading in the right direction. And one suggestion, or at least one rumor, has been that Arizona could test the market and see what they could fetch in return for Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
To that, though, GM John Chayka can only shake his head.
With Ekman-Larsson’s name popping up in recent days, Chayka was asked by Arizona Sports’ Craig Morgan about the availability of the 26-year-old rearguard, and the Coyotes GM couldn’t have been more straightforward. “I’ve been on the record numerous times about the subject and have been very clear,” Chayka told Morgan. “I haven’t had a single conversation about Oliver that has lasted more than five seconds.”
That Chayka’s so open about his unwillingness to trade Ekman-Larsson shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, though. While the start of the campaign has been rough on the Coyotes rearguard, and Chayka said Ekman-Larsson would be the first to admit as much, his track record speaks for itself. He has finished in the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting twice, has registered 71 goals and 181 points in the four seasons prior to the current campaign and has played top competition and big minutes on a nightly basis from his sophomore season onward. That Ekman-Larsson is struggling — which, for him, looks like two goals and 10 points in 17 games — out of the gate shouldn’t be enough for Chayka to trade him in an attempt to bring some sort of jolt to the lineup. To do so would be reactionary and the result would be a blueline that’s worse off than it was even with Ekman-Larsson “struggling.”
Now, all that said, the reality is that at some point in the not-too-distant future the Coyotes may have to at least consider what exactly the return would be for the rearguard if were he to be dealt.
To be sure, the price attached to such a deal is a moving target. Right now, it might not be as high as next summer, nor would that likely be as high as when Ekman-Larsson is months away from unrestricted free agency and teams are potentially fighting to land him at the trade deadline ahead of the 2018-19 post-season. Recent history would suggest he’d land the Coyotes one heck of a return, though. Kevin Shattenkirk, for one, netted the St. Louis Blues two prospects and two high-round picks. Matt Duchene, while he plays a different position, just landed the Colorado Avalanche seven pieces, including first-, second- and third-round picks and three noteworthy prospects.
But what would be the impetus for the Coyotes to pull the trigger on such a deal? Well, that’s not too difficult to answer.
At present, Ekman-Larsson is in the second-to-last season of a six-year, $33-million contract. And being that he’s in the penultimate year of that deal, the discussions at some point in the near future are going to be about the cost of keeping Ekman-Larsson in town. As early as July 1, 2018, he’ll be eligible to sign a contract extension, and he'll be in line for a sizeable raise on the $5.5 million he’s earning per campaign on his current contract.
Statistically, any way you slice it, Ekman-Larsson is one of the best point-producing defensemen in the league since the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2013-13 season. His 76 goals over the past five-plus seasons rank fifth behind Dustin Byfuglien, Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber and Brent Burns. His 215 points put him 13th among rearguards during that period, in the same category as Alex Pietrangelo, Kris Letang, Ryan Suter and Drew Doughty. On a points-per-game basis, Ekman-Larsson ranks 19th, right alongside Suter, Doughty, John Carlson, Mike Green and Torey Krug. And a defenseman who produces like that doesn’t come cheap.
Just look through the deals some of those blueliners are currently signed to and you get an idea of what Ekman-Larsson’s worth could be, too. Almost to a player, they’re signed to deals or projected to earn worth $6 million or more, and when you bring in those who are floating around Ekman-Larsson in terms of per-game production, you get the sense his next contract is going to pay him at least $6.5 million annually, but that could very well be the low end when you factor in cap percentages. Kevin Shattenkirk, for instance, signed a deal with the New York Rangers that pays him 8.77 percent of the cap limit, or $6.65 million. Keith Yandle earns $6.35 million per season and signed for 8.7 percent of the limit. And recent signees such as Cam Fowler and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the latter more known as an all-world shutdown defender, signed for 8.67 percent ($6.5 million) and 9.33 percent ($7 million) of the upper limit on their recent deals. The latter might be close to the range Ekman-Larsson could command, too, given his status as a cornerstone player in Arizona.
If the cap were to rise to, say, $80 million by the time Ekman-Larsson is eligible for his extension, the number he and his camp could land on when an extension is on the table could realistically be somewhere in the $7.5 million range. That’s a $2-million raise and would make Ekman-Larsson the highest-paid Coyote, $1 million more than Derek Stepan. That’s a pretty penny, and if Arizona is in no better a position then than they are now — and one would hope that’s not the case for the long-suffering fan base — the price tag might seem even more steep.
So, as much as it pains to ask the question, one has to wonder if a franchise that’s not historically a big spender will be willing to spend a boatload to keep Ekman-Larsson in town or consider instead getting back all they can and more by sending the star blueliner packing, and that’s especially true if the franchise hasn’t taken any steps forward when the time comes.
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