SUNRISE — When it was announced the Vancouver Canucks were buying out Oliver Ekman-Larsson and making him a free agent, it seemed only natural that the Panthers would have interest.
And they did.
The Panthers, knowing two of their top defenseman would be out for the start of the season, were able to offer Ekman-Larsson an opportunity to get his game back on track.
So far, he has.
Tonight, Ekman-Larsson faces his former team for the first time since the Canucks spent over $19 million — not to mention taking a big salary cap hit for the coming five years —to buyout the final four years of the eight-year deal he originally signed with Arizona.
“It’s always special, right? Going against guys you battled on the ice with,” Ekman-Larsson said on Friday afternoon.
“It … will feel a little weird. But when the game starts, all of that sort of goes away.”
It may be early, but OEL looks a lot like the player the Canucks thought they were getting when they traded for him in 2021.
Florida, of course, got him at a discount.
With the Canucks paying him to go away — and having years of salary cap implications due to the buyout — Ekman-Larsson was free to sign anywhere.
He needed a rebound after those years in Vancouver and Florida has, over the past couple of years, been a place where players do bounce back.
“We’re thrilled to have to have Oliver on board,” Florida GM Bill Zito said after signing him.
“We’re in a cap crunch, we’re in a tough spot and we need to get value players and players who are willing to come in here and utilize the opportunity in our team as a springboard for themselves.’’
Due to the absence of Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, the Panthers have paired OEL up with Gus Forsling on their top pairing and, through the first four games, he leads the team in average ice time at 25:32.
Thursday night against Toronto, he got his first goal of the season and goes into tonight’s game with a point in each of his past two.
Being completely healthy again has made a big difference.
So, too, has been the type of team he joined.
“I had since last February to prepare for this season and I skated a lot this summer. It was nice to get that time to heal and focus on the things I needed to focus on,’’ Ekman-Larsson said.
“They have made it pretty easy on me to come in here and just be myself. “I have been able to focus on myself and just have some fun with it.”
Said coach Paul Maurice: “This guy is a good player and everyone knew that. From being bought out, we could fit him in. But this guy is an elite player.”
As for the Canucks, they only lost $147,000 in cap space this season due to the buyout — but it gets progressively worse for them.
Next season, Ekman-Larsson will cost Vancouver a $2.3 million cap hit and $4.8 million in each of the following two seasons.
In 2027-28 and 2028-29, OEL will cost Vancouver $2.1 million.
That is about $16.3 million of dead cap space over the next six seasons for him not to be on their team.
Florida is paying him $2.25 million for this season.
“There is a standard on this team and I think you could tell right away when I got here,” Ekman-Larsson said before camp opened.
“There was no floating around in the summer skates so you can just tell that they are eager to get going, and I am too.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
VANCOUVER CANUCKS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL App
- Last Season: Florida won 2-0
- This Season: @ Florida, Saturday; @ Vancouver, Dec. 14.
- All-time Regular Season Series: Vancouver leads 18-13-4, 6 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday vs. San Jose, 7:45 p.m.