Nichols: Ekman-Larsson’s potential

May 25, 2010, 4:58 PM

Defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is only 18, but The Arizona Republic feels he has the type of ability and hockey sense that could land him in a Coyotes sweater next season.

He was the sixth overall pick in last summer’s draft and he signed his entry-level contract yesterday. If he doesn’t make the big club next season, he’ll be playing in Sweden again. GM Don Maloney likes what he sees though.

“It’s exciting to have him under contract,” he said. “He’ll attend our summer development camp in early July and training camp in September and then we’ll decide.”

He seems to have a legitimate shot at playing in the NHL right off the bat.

“Looking at his game and the way he skates, I think he’ll make a real strong run at a roster spot, so it’ll be exciting to have him in September (at training camp),” Maloney said.

The AR notes that he played 42 games (9-18-27 with 98 PIM) this season with Leksand in Sweden’s second-tier professional league. He helped lead Sweden to the bronze medal at the 2010 World Championships and also won a bronze at the World Juniors.

“To his credit, he played in a pre-World Championship tournament with the national team was one of the best defencemen and had an important role with Sweden in Germany (at the Worlds), so he really acquitted himself very well at the national team level,” Maloney said.

“When you do that, you have a very good chance of playing in the National Hockey League.”

This kid really does seem to have the necessary tools to become an effective offensive fantasy threat on the back end down the line (and a really solid all-around defenceman on the ice), so he’ll be of particular interest to poolies with the sort of farm system that allows the time to properly develop a prospect. He’s thought to have all of the tools to dominate and he also has the type of hard point shot that a good PP QB needs to get the job done.

It seems unlikely here in late May that we’re looking at a guy that’ll be worth drafting for single-season leagues in ’10-11, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that he could be used as an in-season add if he makes the team. A few key injuries here or there and you never know what sort of power play minutes he could find himself with; not unlike Erik Karlsson’s late-season run with Ottawa.

QUOTABLE
“This did not take us by surprise because for years Stevie has said one day he would like to be a general manager in the NHL ,” Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano told The Detroit News of Steve Yzerman informing him last night that he was leaving the organization to become the new GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It was something he wanted to do, but it had to be the right opportunity for him and his family.”

“It was a tough decision for Steve, that’s why it took such a long time,” Devellano continued. “It’s not easy leaving Detroit for somebody like Steve. He’s been with us for 27 years. He came as an 18-year-old and just recently celebrated his 45th birthday. So it was not an easy decision for him to make.”

DEFENSIVE COACHING, WITH A TWIST
The Star-Ledger has an interesting piece on retired New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, who was responding to some of the criticism he’s faced from several Devils. The really intriguing quotes came regarding Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Gaborik though – two star offensive players who were given an exemption of sorts from playing typical Lemaire-style hockey.

Kovalchuk was allowed to play a different style upon his arrival from Atlanta after that late-season trade.

“He played different than the other guys because of his talent. I have no problem with that,” Lemaire said. “He had 6-7 chances a game. You think I’m going to tell him to play defence? Come on. We’re looking to score goals here. Give me a break.

“I let him play as much as I could as long as it didn’t disturb the whole team: ‘Play the way you want, but be responsible when it’s time to come back and when it’s time to do the job in your zone.’ Which he was.”

Lemaire told The Star-Ledger it was the same way with Gaborik in Minnesota.

“I had the opportunity to coach Gaborik,” he explained. “I tried at the start to get Gabby to play a two-way game as good as he could play. You know what? It wasn’t working because Gaborik is an offensive player and he has to think offense pretty much 90 percent of the time he is on the ice. The 10 percent when he thinks defensively is when he is in his own zone.

“I heard people say when Kovalchuk came, ‘He’s going to make him a defensive player.’ No. These guys have to go offensive. They certainly have to be responsible at certain times, which I thought Kovy was and I thought Gaborik was. But you cannot try to change these guys’ games. That’s one thing I’ve learned in my career.”

HUNWICK LOOKING FORWARD
The Boston Herald notes that toward the end of his second full NHL season, Matt Hunwick rediscovered his confidence and the quick, aggressive attacking style that should make him a highly valuable Bruin for years to come.

“I didn’t feel like it was the smoothest year individually or collectively,” said Hunwick, who posted 6-8-14 totals and a troubling -16 while averaging 17:57 in icetime.

“I did feel like I made strides toward the end and started playing my best hockey in April and May. That’s what you want.

“It’s tough throughout the season when things aren’t going well and the team isn’t meeting expectations. It’s tough on everyone. But I feel like I got better as the season went along. Hopefully I come in next year and right from the start pick up where I left off.”

Injuries to other blueliners provided the right opportunity for him in March and the coaching staff stuck with him, which made a difference in his self-belief.

“They gave me an opportunity,” Hunwick said. “They gave me time on the power play even before we got to the playoffs. You’re still kind of hesitant, you feel like, ‘If I make a mistake, will I be taken off the power play?’ But they were steadfast. They stayed behind me. That gave me confidence. I felt like I could go out and try to make a play. It wasn’t like if I made one bad pass I’d be yanked. I was very comfortable in that role.

“It gives you confidence when you know you’re counted on and you have to be good. It’s amazing how much better you play when expectations are higher. It’s easy to step up, be focused and start to play your best. I had a couple of games where I played a lot of minutes, got some confidence and raised my own level of expectations. I knew I could play 20-plus minutes and do a pretty good job.”

The Herald notes that last summer he still was recovering from emergency surgery to remove his spleen, which was damaged in the playoffs against Montreal. This year he is looking forward to a normal offseason conditioning program and the confidence that his days of being a healthy scratch are behind him.

He’ll be set to earn just over $1.5M in the final year of his contract in ’10-11, at which point he’ll become an RFA if he’s not signed to an extension.

QUOTABLE
“Antti’s a guy we had confidence in, internally, all year,” Hawks GM Stan Bowman told The Chicago Tribune of goaltender Antti Niemi. “Maybe people didn’t know him that well, so they were wondering, is this the right guy? But it doesn’t surprise me at all what he’s done.

“He’s a guy that we’ve seen for a long time coming, his talent level. And right now, to see him play the way he did in pressure situations, it gives our team a big boost, because we can kind of play the way we need to play and he’s got our back.”

BIEGA SIGNS WITH SABRES
According to The Buffalo News, one of the steadiest players in the Boston hockey scene will be making the short trip to Portland next season.

Alex Biega (fifth round in 2006), Harvard’s captain who never missed a game in his four seasons with the Crimson, has signed a two-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres and is expected to begin his pro career with the Pirates in the AHL. His contract is for $515,000 in ’10-11 and $525,000 in ’11-12.

The 22-year-old played 131 games at Harvard, recording 15 goals and 70 points. His 55 assists were the most by a Crimson defenseman since Derek Maguire had 71 from 1991-94. Biega had two goals and eight assists in 30 games this season.

MONDAY’S LINES
Michael Cammalleri Tomas Plekanec Andrei Kostitsyn
Mathieu Darche Scott Gomez Brian Gionta
Benoit Pouliot Dominic Moore Maxim Lapierre
Glen Metropolit Travis Moen

Josh Gorges Hal Gill
Roman Hamrlik P.K. Subban
Jaroslav Spacek Marc-Andre Bergeron
Ryan O’Byrne

Simon Gagne Mike Richards Jeff Carter
Scott Hartnell Danny Briere Ville Leino
James van Riemsdyk Claude Giroux Arron Asham
Darroll Powe Blair Betts Ian Laperriere

Chris Pronger Matt Carle
Braydon Coburn Kimmo Timonen
Lukas Krajicek Ryan Parent

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