By now, most diehard hockey fans will have seen the reports: The Arizona Coyotes are engaging in a rebuild/reset/retooling, and everything is on the table, including franchise cornerstone Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
The only problem, of course, is that he really isn’t.
The comment that kicked off speculation about Ekman-Larsson’s future was made by general manager Don Maloney in an interview with Ottawa radio station TSN 1200. Asked a question about the level of trade interest in pending free agent Antoine Vermette, Maloney answered as follows:
We like all our players. Antoine is a very good person; he can be part of the solution, he’s not part of the problem. And yet, where we’re at, we have to look at everybody and everything. There’s really nobody we wouldn’t talk about in a deal, and I really don’t want to get into specifics; the only player, obviously Shane Doan is not going anywhere. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is player that we would certainly be very, very reluctant to part with. But as far as I’m concerned when you’re sitting with our record and we’re [one of the] three or four worst records in the league then everybody’s up for grabs. If there’s deals out there that’s going to make us better long-term—and that’s the key for us, we’re not doing anything short term here to plug a hole or fill a short-term need. We’re looking down the road.
Nobody sane would look at that and see “Oliver Ekman-Larsson is… up for grabs,” but the nature of the internet being what it is, that’s been the message many have run with. If anything, in context, Maloney is saying precisely the opposite of that: Listing players his team would be reluctant to deal, Ekman-Larsson was one of two guys to make the list.
He does acknowledge that an Ekman-Larsson trade is possible, but only in the "we’re so bad that nobody’s untouchable" sense. As a practical matter, he might as well be because it’s pretty much impossible to construct a trade that makes any sense for the Coyotes.
We might as well start by looking at the player’s age relative to the Arizona rebuild. Ekman-Larsson is just 23 years old and he has 300-odd NHL games under his belt. The prime scoring years for forwards tend to be age 25-26, and there is some evidence to suggest that the peak years for defencemen may be even later than that.
Maloney told TSN that he didn’t believe rebuilding the Coyotes needed to take five or 10 years; in his view this is a team that can turn things around pretty quickly. If we assume that Ekman-Larsson is two or three years away from being in the prime of his NHL career, how does that fit with Maloney’s projected timeline? It fits pretty much perfectly.
So why would the Coyotes move a young defencemen who is going to be at his very best right around the time the team is supposed to be competing?
It’s also not like there are any external factors pushing a deal. "If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be traded" is a hockey truism and for good reason, but teams don’t move players without some incentive. In the case of the Gretzky deal, the primary incentive was a massive infusion of cash to the Edmonton Oilers— that’s why it’s often described as a sale rather than a trade.
Arizona might take a big bundle of cash for Ekman-Larsson, but the NHL doesn’t do that anymore, and with the player on a team-friendly $5.5 million/year deal until 2019 and the Coyotes obligated to spend up to the salary cap floor there’s simply no financial case to move him.
It’s even harder to make a trade seem plausible if we look at a deal in the context of Arizona’s blue line situation. Ekman-Larsson was averaging 25:16 per game heading into action on Saturday; the only other defencemen averaging more than 20 minutes per game were Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek.
Michalek hits free agency this summer and will probably be traded before he gets there. The Coyotes are also reasonably likely to deal Yandle this summer because he’ll be a free agent in 2016 and it makes sense to trade him before he becomes just another rental player.
In short, it would be insane for Maloney to move a 23-year-old No. 1 defenceman who is on a good deal and under team control for ages when he’s trying to engineer a quick rebuild and likely to gut the other key pillars of his blue line in the process of doing that. That’s probably why Ekman-Larsson headlined an earlier comment Maloney made in that same interview on the key pieces of the rebuild:
“I don’t see this as being a 10-year project, I don’t,” Maloney said. “We have some good things in our system, some younger players; Ekman-Larsson and Boedker and even Hanzal and certainly the core group moving forward, so it’s not like we’re starting from square one.”
Ekman-Larsson isn’t really on the market, Maloney didn’t really say he was, and the only ambiguity in his comment was nothing but boilerplate. The internet loves talking about trade rumours because it’s built on pageviews and people like reading about trade rumours. There’s absolutely nothing to see here.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.