The Toronto Maple Leafs have announced the signing of defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to a four-year contract worth $3.5 million per season.

Brad Treliving will be very familiar with this player, given their time together in Arizona, as will Shane Doan, who played with OEL and is now the Leafs‘ Assistant GM.

This marks the Leafs‘ second defense signing of the day (Chris Tanev was the first), and unless a trade takes place, it would mean the Leafs have seven defensemen under contract, including Conor Timmins. OEL rounds out a group that includes Morgan Rielly, Jake McCabe, Chris Tanev, Timothy Liljegren, Simon Benoit, and Timmins.

OEL has experienced some real highs and lows over the past few years. Often talked about as one of the most underrated players in the league while he was in Arizona, the Swede racked up 23 and 21-goal seasons as a Coyote and ended up a key piece in a big trade by the Canucks.

Fast forward to the summer of 2023, OEL was bought out by Vancouver and signed a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers. He managed to reinvigorate his career a bit in the Sunshine State, culminating in a Stanley Cup championship.

This past regular season, OEL put up overall strong numbers, tilting the ice in shot attempts (56.14 percent) and expected goals (54.33 percent) and outscoring opponents 49-40. He also scored nine goals and 32 points. A Leafs defenseman hasn’t scored at least nine goals since Morgan Rielly put up 10 in the 2021-22 season. OEL owns a good point shot; he can both sift it through traffic and hammer the puck if he has a clean look.

During the first two months of the season, OEL largely played on the top pairing with Gustav Forsling while Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour were recovering from injury, and he was excellent in that time period. In 23 games over the first two months, he racked up six goals and 12 points and played 21:36 per night.

When Ekbland and Montour returned, OEL was pushed down the lineup and became a third-pairing defenseman alongside Dmitry Kulikov. Before the All-Star Break, OEL averaged 18:50 per night and scored 25 points in 49 games (over a 40-point pace). After the All-Star break, he tallied just seven assists in 31 games and played 17:41 per night.

In the playoffs, OEL averaged just 15:27 per game on the Panthers’ third pairing with Dmitry Kulikov, recording two goals and six points.

For a Leafs team that has battled serious power-play issues in the playoffs, OEL at least gives them another option. As Brandon Montour struggled in the playoffs, the Panthers started turning to OEL in his place; over the final five games of the SCF, OEL played more on the power play than Montour did.

Similar to Klingberg last season, OEL gives the Leafs a legitimate option to replace Rielly on the man advantage and a bit of a different look — he’s a genuine shooter who can score from the point. It’s not a Bryan McCabe one-timer bomb, but if teams sag off the point and OEL has a little time and space, he will make teams pay.

As we mentioned following the Tanev signing, we are now projecting the Toronto defense to look roughly like this:

Rielly – Tanev
Benoit – McCabe
OEL – Liljegren

We can quibble with the spots for OEL and Benoit above, but the truth is that Benoit and McCabe worked together, and they used the pair in a defensive role. It wouldn’t make any sense to place OEL beside McCabe; OEL isn’t a defenseman who the coach will look to match up defensively, and it wouldn’t be a good use of McCabe’s skillset not to have him match up.

The contract itself is somewhat similar to the Tanev and Domi deals that the Leafs just signed. Next season, the $3.5 million salary should be completely fine. OEL should be able to give them at least 18 good minutes per night, provide stability for Liljegren on a third pairing, give them a second viable power-play threat, and add some much-needed offense from the point.

The question, as with Tanev and Domi, is the term. It’s four years, and OEL turns 33 in a few weeks (on July 17). For OEL and Tanev, the time to get it done is in the next few seasons. They aren’t going to get better in their mid-to-late 30s, and now they will combine to make $8 million for the next four seasons.

Part of this is the result of the Leafs simply not possessing — and not clearing — any cap space. Matt Roy signed for $5.5 million. Nikita Zadorov signed for $5 million. Add in a goalie and the need to fill out the forward group, and they didn’t have enough space for much more. The same goes for any hope of keeping Bertuzzi, who signed a deal starting with a five in Chicago. All draft, the Leafs didn’t shed any money (as other teams did), and if something happens with Mitch Marner, it’s not going to go down until after this run of player moves at this rate.

And so here we are. They are maxing out the term to push down AAV as best as possible, and they added two defensemen. Tanev is excellent. OEL should help, but it’s not a perfect fit or a set-it-and-forget top-four defenseman. But Tanev and OEL are an upgrade on Ilya Lyubushkin and Joel Edmundson (and TJ Brodie) from last season’s playoff defense. The forward group is worse, having lost Bertuzzi’s 21 goals without replacing it at all, but one can argue that they never had their full forward group this past spring due to injury. There is still time — and options — to add to the group.