NASHVILLE – When asked about his impressions of 21-year-old Phoenix Coyotes defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz wasted no time to sing his praises.
“He is a star – a star,” Trotz said. “He’s an under-the-radar star, and he’s very efficient. His game is very prototypical of a (Nicklas) Lidstrom – those little subtleties and the little things that he does with poise under pressure… he’s a star.”
Wait, that Nicklas Lidstrom? The same Lidstrom that is considered by some as the best defencemen to ever play in the NHL, who won four Stanley Cups in his 20 seasons?
“Nobody wants to put that on him,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said, “but he has the potential to be that special.”
Ekman-Larsson was born and raised in Lidstrom’s homeland of Sweden. Like any young player coming out of that part of the world, Ekman-Larsson considered Lidstrom to be a hero back home and one of his idols while growing up.
“It’s fun to get compared to him, but I’m not even close to him,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I watched him a lot when I was younger and when we played against him. I met him my first year at the All-Star Game and talked to him a little bit. It was awesome. It meant a lot to me. He’s a great guy.”
Lidstrom is in a class by himself, so to compare any 21-year-old hockey player to someone of that ilk is premature. However, it does say a lot for Trotz and Doan, who have spent a combined 31 seasons in the NHL, to liken the defenceman’s game to a future Hall of Famer that they have seen up close countless times.
This season is Ekman-Larsson’s third in the NHL, but by April he will have only played in the equivalent of slightly more than two full NHL seasons. What makes him so good this early in his career?
“The game is just so easy for him. It’s not fair,” said Doan, who was almost at a loss for words when talking about the young blue-liner. “No matter what he’s doing, it looks easy. He’s everything you want in a defenseman now. You forget that he’s only 21.”
Doan continued, “His first year you could see it. He would do things where you’re like, ‘This kid is going to be phenomenal.’ It’s just so easy for him and he’s just so good.”
Fellow defenceman Keith Yandle added, “Every year he keeps getting better and better. He works hard, he’s super skilled and can make something happen every time he’s on the ice.”
Ekman-Larsson’s ice time has increased exponentially in each of his three seasons. After averaging 15:02 and 22:06 of ice time per game in his rookie and sophomore seasons, respectively, the baby-faced Swede is now leading the Coyotes in ice time. Getting an opportunity to play in all situations, Ekman-Larsson’s 24:58 of average ice time through 14 games in 2012-13 ranks 20th in the league.
That sharp increase in playing time compared to the minutes he was receiving just two years ago shows the confidence the coaching staff has in him, as well as Ekman-Larsson’s comfort level this soon in his career. The Karlskrona, Sweden, native mentioned that his confidence was low in his rookie year, but that things have obviously changed.
“It’s tough to get into the league. There are a lot of good players,” said Ekman-Larsson, whose eight points are tied for second on the Coyotes’ roster. “The coaches believe in me and it’s a great feeling to have. I have confidence on the ice, but I have to keep playing and try to get better every day.”
It’s an overused cliché in today’s NHL, but Ekman-Larsson truly looks like he has been in the league 10 years. Last season he recorded 32 points, but he now appears to be a more dynamic threat offensively. His intelligence and decision-making in both the offensive and defensive zones is something that most defencemen at his age struggle with.
“I thought midway through last season Oliver took a real step forward in his development,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. “He’s maturing and growing as we speak. He’s a very valuable player for us.”
Maloney drafted Ekman-Larsson sixth overall in 2009. The jury is still out on the success of that draft class, which also features John Tavares and Evander Kane, but the Coyotes’ blue-liner is already at or near the top.
“At that time in the scouting world, a lot of people thought Oliver would rival with Victor Hedman (second overall to Tampa Bay), another Swede who was physically a lot more mature,” Maloney explained. “When you talked about upside and potential, if Oliver develops the way we all hope, we thought he could be on par or ahead of Victor. We’re really happy with where his game is at and he’s certainly trending where we need him to go.”
As it stands now, the Coyotes certainly struck gold with that sixth-overall pick three-plus years ago. The backbone of Dave Tippett’s system is defense and goaltending, and Ekman-Larsson has quickly become the anchor of a blue line that includes another top defenceman in Yandle.
“When you can have one of those guys on the ice nearly 50 minutes a night, it makes it tough on the other team,” Doan said.
He may only be 21 years old and his excellence may go unnoticed in Phoenix, but Ekman-Larsson is quietly and steadily becoming a star defenceman in this league.
“I have so much respect for Teppo Numminen as an overall defenceman,” said Doan, a former teammate of Numminen’s. “I’d put (Oliver) in there with Teppo. The limit in the sky for him is as high as anyone I’ve ever played with.”
As high as seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom?
“He’s got a long way to go before he gets in that category in my opinion,” Maloney said. “Last year Lidstrom was still one of the best defencemen in the league at 40 years old. Oliver really has an unlimited upside, but this is still a work in progress.”