Question: The doorbell rings, and a group of Olympic-calibre hockey players are standing on your doorstep. Their last names are Ekman-Larsson, Yandle, Hanzal and Smith. Can you:
A Identify which one is which?
B List their first names?
C List the countries they play for and their NHL team?
D Tell us if we’re talking about four players, or five?
One of the beauties of playing for the (hint) Phoenix Coyotes is that you can walk through a shopping mall in Arizona with relative anonymity. The problem, of course, is that the same anonymity for ’Yotes extends to shopping malls in the other 29 National Hockey League cities and arenas as well.
The Coyotes are the 24th worst road draw in the league so far this season and, not surprisingly, place 30th in tickets sold at home. We all know goalie Mike Smith is in the Canadian Olympic conversation behind Carey Price and Roberto Luongo, but would it surprise you to learn that Oliver Ekman-Larson, at age 22, is right there with fellow Swede Erik Karlsson—and ahead, in the opinions of many—as one of the NHL’s top five or six defencemen? “He could be the best in the league,” says slightly biased teammate Derek Morris, whose opinion is formed through 1,064 games worked on various NHL bluelines. “His defensive works gets overlooked because he’s so good in the offensive zone. He’s a great two-way defenceman.”
In the West, when people talk about Ekman-Larsson they invoke monikers like “Lidstrom Lite.” They speak of his ability to walk the blueline on the power play “the way “Zoobie” (Sergei Zubov) used to.” Add Boston native Keith Yandle, and the Coyotes have their back-end version of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, or P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov—in pedigree, if not similarity of style. A lot of teams say this, but Phoenix coach Dave Tippett’s team is truly just a couple of scoring forwards away from being a serious Stanley Cup contender.
But for years now, the flow of news out of Phoenix has been business-related. Even as they stomped the Oilers 6-2 Tuesday night in Edmonton, the Coyotes made the sports ticker first on the fact former coach Wayne Gretzky was finally paid out by the NHL for money owed since his days in the desert. Publicly Phoenix has been the NHL’s sinkhole, while in private GM Don Maloney has done a masterful job of steering his hockey operation through NHL stewardship and into more playoff series (four) the past three years than every Canadian team except Vancouver.
But the combination of playing in a division with Los Angeles, San Jose and Vancouver, along with the fact the Arizona Republic doesn’t even send a beat writer on the road with the Coyotes, thrusts one of the most shrewdly operated NHL franchises into eternal obscurity.
Up front, former Senator Antoine Vermette (57.8, ranked sixth overall in the faceoff circle) has blossomed into one of the top defensive centres in hockey. “Compare his stats with (Patrice) Bergeron in Boston. Very similar,” says Tippett. “He’s a very reliable player for us.” Centre Martin Hanzal is Phoenix’s answer in physical stature to division rivals Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton and Anze Kopitar. And now he’s starting to produce offensively, with 22 points in 25 games. “He’s a big, heavy body, hard on draws, and instrumental for turning around our power play this year,” Morris says. “He’s turned himself into a Tomas Holmstrom. He gets in front of the net, he’s really worked on tipping pucks, and he’s a huge body.”
Who knew? The facts are, Canadians may know plenty about Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, but you couldn’t trade both to Maloney and get Hanzal back. And while the GM admits his team could use a little more punch up front, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts for us,” Maloney says. “We could certainly use a star or two—that household name to help get people in our building. But when you start to pay a little closer attention to us you see a guy like Keith Yandle, one of the top scoring defencemen in the league and a two-time all-star. Oliver Ekman-Larson is emerging as one of the top players in this league. Mike Smith, hopefully he has a chance for the Olympic team.
Is the Pacific Division the best in hockey? Well, the Sharks, Ducks and Kings rank 2-3-4 in the NHL, and Phoenix and Vancouver are also among the top 13 clubs. So it’s a pretty winnable argument. The Coyotes might just be the team to snap Vancouver’s five-year playoff streak this spring, but either way, the West had better make room for the ‘Yotes. With this young core, they’re not going anywhere but up for a long while.