Travis Konecny of the Philadelphia Flyers called him an “angry little elf”. Filip Zadina of the Detroit Red Wings referred to him as a “midget” in a postgame press conference. I’m referring to one of the Vancouver Canucks acquisitions from the summer, forward Conor Garland, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes.
He is a “shift” disturber, Energizer bunny, and waterbug all rolled into one. He seems to pattern his game a bit after Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins, a name Garland brought up more than once in the preseason. Marchand has a higher-end offensive game, but there are similarities in stature, attitude and approach.
The other man who came north in the July 23rd transaction was defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (OEL). He was considered the main piece in the deal that sent three draft picks and some bad contracts south, but many hockey aficionados were more excited about Garland. Either way, we’re only three games into the Canucks 2021-’22 season, and it looks like Vancouver fans should be excited about both.
Playing in Glendale, Arizona is like hockey purgatory. The anonymous lifestyle I’m sure is nice, and playing hockey for large chunks of change is adaptable to any environment. But let’s face it, and I’ve seen it first hand as a visiting game broadcaster and journalist, the half empty rink and the less than authentic atmosphere gets old quickly. The games were way more exciting back when the team first moved from Winnipeg and Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk were playing at America West Arena near downtown Phoenix, even with its obstructed view seats at one end of the rink. Playing in a modified basketball building was way more tantalizing that what’s been taking place the last decade-and-a-half in the strip mall boonies.
At one point the NHL actually took ownership of the franchise. Around that time, the league had to fend off a hostile takeover bid by then Blackberry magnate Jim Balsillie, who tried to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. Without regurgitating the entire history, let’s just say there have been many stops and starts, multiple ownerships, weird management hires and decisions, and a rarely fluctuating, mediocre fanbase. It’s all about TV markets, keeping the “national footprint”, and the league saving face. Moving this club would also mean another realignment, yuck, so instead, the current owner is insisting there will be a new billion-dollar arena deal closer to the core Phoenix population. Officially holding breath.
Shirley …. I digress.
Bottom line, Garland and OEL escaped. They’re now relishing the opportunity to play in a city that takes hockey matters seriously in a country where pucks are part of the fabric. Garland grew up near Boston, so he gets it, and Ekman-Larsson is Swedish.
Last season, Garland was second in the league behind Connor McDavid in drawing penalties, a pretty remarkable fact given the difference in their games. McDavid draws them as they’re holding on for dear life, Garland gets them as he’s cycling pucks or pissing people off, mostly the previous.
“I don’t think it’s from being a pest and that, I think it’s from having the puck on your stick and being hard to defend against,” Garland said after the loss to Detroit. “When I’m playing well and using my edges and my speed, and you beat somebody, they sometimes have to haul you down. I think it’s more from that than being competitive and going to the dirty areas.”
In Philly Friday night, Garland drew one against Flyer Max Willman in neutral ice that was based simply on the more stringent enforcement of the cross checking rule. Maybe a combination of motivations for Willman, puck possession for Garland and aggravation with the pest. Wednesday however, the Canucks third period comeback started with exactly what Garland is talking about. His fast-paced, tap-dancing and puck control up the right wing boards in the Oilers zone forced a trip by defenceman Tyson Barrie, and the Canucks scored on the ensuing power play.
Ekman-Larsson scored the first goal of Vancouver’s season.
Which provides a nice transition to the actual main man in the deal, particularly if you base it on cost, duration of contract, and expectations. This is an expensive bounce back situation for a player who admits he hasn’t been at his best the last two seasons. But the writing of his departure from purgatory was already on the wall for a full season, another distraction for a player stagnating in the desert. He arrived with six years remaining on a contract that pays him $8.25-million per season, almost a million of that retained by the Coyotes.
So far, his physical and chippy play has impressed the club. Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green mentioned early in camp that OEL’s hitting and physical nature pleasantly surprised him. OEL was particularly unpleasant in Detroit, twice involved in melees, in one instance giving Detroit D-man Moritz Seider a stick to the groin. He plays in all situations and is a veteran leader, wearing the C in Arizona and an A here in Vancouver.
“All the guys are unbelievable people in there and they’ve made it pretty easy,” OEL said after the Edmonton game. “It’s a big honour for me to wear a letter on my jersey. Bo (Horvat) is a great captain so I’m just trying to help him out, Millsy (JT Miller) has been here, and they’re a big part of this team.”
Ekman-Larsson has averaged 24-minutes a night. He already has 11 shots on goal, a goal, an assist, and eight hits. He’s also blocked three shots. He’s steady in all three zones, controls matters on the power play, and obviously isn’t afraid to do the dirty work.
Garland is playing just more than 20-minutes a night and seeing a couple of minutes each evening on the power play. He’s a point-a-game player thus far with an assist in the first two games and a goal in Detroit. Just as important is the fact that the Vancouver Canucks can never let down when he’s out there; his energy infectious.
Green was asked about Garland after the Detroit game, but he could have been talking about either player
“Competitive guys go to hard places and they get involved around the puck,” Green said. “They do whatever it takes to win; we can’t have enough ultra-competitive players and that’s what we look for in players.”
Purgatory, prison, call it what you’d like, but Garland and Ekman-Larsson have been released, and their making the most of their freedom.