The Last Stand of Alexander Edler

Alexander Edler

For more than two decades the Vancouver Canucks have had an absolute rock patrolling their blue line. They entered this century with Mattias Ohlund, the 6′-4″ 230 pound Swede playing over 25 minutes a night. A decade later, it was Alexander Edler, the 6′-3″ 215 pound Swede playing over 24 minutes a night. That streak may come to an end this season without an obvious inheritor, for better or worse.

Introducing Alexander Edler

While Edler has a more cerebral game than Ohlund did, don’t mistake him for a pushover. Edler’s physical side has taken more than one forward unaware. Likewise, while he isn’t known for his scoring prowess – he’s gotten anywhere from 20 to 49 points in a full season – his 99 goals and 401 career points lead the team for defencemen. In 24 more games, he’ll have the fourth-highest number played of any Canuck.

Edler was discovered by the Canucks European scout and former star Thomas Gradin. He was playing in a third-tier Swedish league in his draft year, but the Canucks traded up to get his rights in 2004. That was because the Detriot Red Wings scout who had found them Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk also discovered Edler. Beating them to the punch was kind of a big deal, even for a big kid skating in little more than beer-league hockey. He was… rough. A good skater, the Canucks got him into Modo’s junior system, then to North America as soon as they could. His one year in junior showed he was worth the risk, finishing fourth in WHL rookie scoring with 53 points.

A deal was signed, and his pro career in the Canucks system began.

You’re In It Now

Possibly the most amazing thing about the Vancouver Canucks is just how rarely they’ve had a top-rate offensive defender. It’s not for a lack of trying, either. Paul Reinhart is probably the first real offensive specialist they ever had, and he only lasted two years. A strong argument could be made that until last year, Jyrki Lumme was their best overall. There are very good individual years, but mostly they come from otherwise solid players. Dennis Kearns, for instance, had a great year, a couple good ones, then… okay. Typically, the best single-season point total was 63 from Doug Lidster. A fine player and all, but more “reliable” than “dangerous” by any measure.

Alexander Edler didn’t change that. But he has been a quiet leader – wearing an “A” for the last two seasons – for 14 years. Edler has missed nearly 200 games to injuries over the years, some of which undoubtedly exacerbated through overuse. He’s played on a lot of mediocre teams, along with a couple excellent ones, but few with a lot of support on the blue line. This is a low-key, low-maintenance guy. As such, he doesn’t get a lot of recognition, even from the team’s fans. For instance: watch long enough, and you’ll discover he’s an excellent and under-appreciated hitter. And now, as his injuries and age are catching up with him, the Canucks have a superstar defender.

Quinn Hughes‘ excellent rookie season presages a lot of great years, but Edler won’t be around to see them.

You’re Out Of It Now

There was a plan. You could see it, even if you didn’t like it. The 2016 fifth-overall pick Olli Juolevi was the heir-apparent: a bit more thoughtful, a bit less physical, but a solid all-around defender for years to come. His best trait was preternatural calm in all situations, but after that was his ability to recognize situations. This is great – if you’re able to get into position to do something about them. Injuries to his legs and back have hampered his play since draft day, limiting his ice time. Best laid plans and all that.

Partly as a result of the Canucks’ best shot – spending their fifth overall selection on a defender – not making the team, Edler was signed on for another two seasons. And he’s been good! Not being the player to do everything had him roaring out of the gate with nine points in just 12 games. He was still playing too many minutes, but as coach Travis Green grew to trust Hughes, Edler could ease back to more of a second-pair role. This isn’t really where you want a $6 million man to play in a cash-tight world, unfortunately.

Edler is going to be 34 years old this season. He is still good, but just that – “good”. The salary cap is staying flat for next year, and the Canucks have a lot of big names needing new deals. Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Thatcher Demko, and Adam Gaudette are all due, along with the usual set of minor league RFAs. It will be very, very difficult fitting a veteran of Alexander Edler’s calibre into that structure. The problem isn’t that he can’t play; Edler’s game is his hockey IQ as much as his physical ability.

The Future of Alexander Edler

The problem isn’t just that other teams can offer him a better pay rate than Vancouver will. The Canucks have young guys coming up and Edler fits into a different spot on the team than he formerly did. The most likely offer, and one they dearly wish Edler would take, would be as a third-pair veteran who kills penalties. That would fit perfectly, and he still has the skills to make the most of that spot.

But he can do more for someone else. And if another team decides this free agent is worth $4 million for a single year, who’s to blame him for taking it? Especially if they are closer to winning a Stanley Cup than the Canucks are? Unless Edler decides to take a 60% or more pay cut between this year and next, this will be his last season as a Vancouver Canuck.

The most obvious continuation was Juolevi, but his injury history derailed that plan. Still, having a defenceman who uses his intelligence as much as physical traits is never a bad thing. Juolevi is lighter than either of his predecessors and may not live up to his draft position or the reputation of Ohlund and Edler. There may not even be room for him this season, even as Edler closes his time with the Canucks. But this truncated year is his best chance to take the “Oh, yeah, him! He’s pretty good, isn’t he?” mantle into the future.

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