Shane Doan does a lot for the Phoenix Coyotes—scores goals, lays out hits, back-checks ferociously—but he’s not yet qualified to be the team’s general manager. He is, however, the team’s captain and, as such, likes to pump his guys’ tires from time to time. So maybe we should allow those two points to form a grain of salt to be taken when hearing Doan’s assessment of a 22-year-old Coyotes defenceman whose three names are always circled by opposing coaches, but still slip by much of the hockey-watching public.
“I wouldn’t trade him for any player in the league,” Doan says of Oliver Ekman-Larsson. “He’s amazing.”
Is this just overly lavish praise from a teammate who has a desert dog in the fight? Sure. But even if Doan isn’t meant to be taken literally, the thrust behind what he’s saying is as powerful as the skating stride that has Ekman-Larsson pushing into the upper-echelon of elite NHL defenceman.
Though he was drafted sixth overall in 2009, Ekman-Larsson got lost in the mix somewhat, largely because his countryman and fellow blue-liner Victor Hedman was the second player drafted that year. To a degree, it was thought the six-foot-six Hedman might actually bump John Tavares for top spot that year, so all the talk about Swedish blue-liners landed on his shoulders. But the shrewd Coyotes never lost sight of Ekman-Larsson and nabbed him one spot ahead of where the Toronto Maple Leafs took Nazem Kadri.
Ekman-Larsson stayed in Sweden for one year after being drafted, before jumping into an American Hockey League apprenticeship for the 2010-11 campaign as a 19 year old. He started and ended the season with the San Antonio Rampage, but played 48 NHL games as a teenager in between. The next year, he cracked the Coyotes full-time and registered 13 goals in 82 games, more than all but four defenceman in the league.
The true measure of Ekman-Larsson’s worth, however, came in the 2012 playoffs. For the first time since 1987 the Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets franchise won a playoff round, advancing to the Western Conference final versus the Los Angeles Kings. Still a couple months shy of his 22nd birthday, Ekman-Larsson played almost 26 minutes a night for Phoenix in 16 post-season games—nearly three more minutes on average more than any other Coyote. That speaks to the trust that defence-first and detail-oriented coach Dave Tippett had and has in his young blue-liner, as Ekman-Larsson continues to play more, game in and game out, than anybody on his team.
“He makes every play,” Doan says. “He’s our best defensive player and he’s in the running for our best offensive player, too.”
Ringing as Doan’s endorsement is, he’d need a Mad Men–worthy ad campaign to get Ekman-Larsson the recognition he deserves. In recent years, when the hockey world does pay attention to Phoenix it’s usually in the context of wondering whether the club will be repatriated by Canada after all.
Last year’s conference-only truncated schedule meant Ekman-Larsson’s only trips to the Eastern Time Zone were in Detroit and Columbus. And just as Hedman dominated the headlines in 2009, talk of the best young defencemen in the league usually turns to the Norris Trophy-winning, highlight-friendly exploits of Erik Karlsson—whose Ottawa Senators visit Phoenix Tuesday night—and the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban. No doubt, both those players posses a dynamic offensive element to their game Ekman-Larsson will be hard-pressed to match. But with the equivalent of a 40-point season on his resume last year and a pair of goals through six games this year, he’s got more than enough chops to feed the attack. And that doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story.
As Doan alluded to, Ekman-Larsson is the rare young D-man who can generate significant offence, but may actually be better on the other side of the puck. Though not a bruiser, Ekman-Larsson is six-foot-two and a 10-out-of-10 when it comes to body position and smarts. Because of that, Tippett has him on the ice in all situations, and only shot-blocking king Zbynek Michalek plays more short-handed minutes for the ‘Yotes than Ekman-Larsson.
Small wonder Doan wouldn’t trade him for another player; you’d need three bodies back to cover everything Ekman-Larsson does. And given he’s only begun his ascent, you can bet Ekman-Larsson’s captain will soon be just one voice in the chorus of commendation for this masterful defenceman.