Coyotes’ Ekman-Larsson says money alone won’t determine free-agent plans

Arizona Coyotes defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (23) and Vegas Golden Knights centre Jonathan Marchessault chase the puck. (David Becker/AP)

VANCOUVER – Much more separates Drew Doughty and Oliver Ekman-Larsson than one draft class and the western edge of the Sonoran Desert.

Doughty, the Los Angeles Kings’ defenceman who is eligible for unrestricted free agency 16 months from now, famously went Rod Tidwell last fall and essentially bellowed "Show me the money!" in an interview with The Athletic.

Doughty figures he and Erik Karlsson, the Ottawa Senators captain who is also a potential UFA in 2019, should be paid "quite a bit more" than any defenceman in the NHL, and if getting paid means changing teams, so be it.

Asked about the Doughty Plan this week, Arizona Coyotes’ Ekman-Larsson said: "It’s just money. It’s not going to make you happier. It might make your life a little bit easier but it’s not going to make you happier. I feel if you’re around good people, that’s what makes you happy. I feel like I have that here. This is where I want to be."

Jerry Maguire, Tidwell’s agent in the movie, would by weepy with gratitude to have a client like Ekman-Larsson, the third star defenceman who could go to the highest bidder next year.

Doughty, the 28-year-old from London, Ont., was drafted second overall by the Kings in 2008. One year later, Sweden’s Ekman-Larsson, 26, went sixth to Arizona.

Both are outstanding, but there are other differences between the two as dramatic as their views on capitalism.

Doughty is also a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a Norris Trophy winner, a confident leader who is driven to win, demands much from himself and teammates, and excels under pressure.

Ekman-Larsson has spent his entire eight-year career in the shadows with one of the NHL’s poorest and least-visible franchises. He has been to the playoffs once. What pressure?

Yes, it’s great for the Coyotes that he wants to stay. But whether he does, whether the Coyotes will show him the money this summer when contract talks can begin, probably hinges on whether, at least in leadership and drive, Ekman-Larsson can become more like Doughty.

"When you look at the best defencemen in the league — Doughty, Karlsson — he has to want to be on that list," Arizona’s first-year coach Rick Tocchet said. "I expect him to be on that list because that’s how good he can be.

"I think any athlete when you get used to something, you can get comfortable. All I know is to win you have to be uncomfortable. He knows he has to do some uncomfortable things — put it that way – to be a leader."

The relationship between Tocchet and Ekman-Larsson, like the Coyotes’ quiet improvement this season since their embarrassing 2-15-3 start, is ongoing.

For the defenceman, however, changes in his life and outlook have dwarfed changes related to his coach.

It was a year ago that Ekman-Larsson’s mother, Annica Ekman, succumbed to cancer in Sweden after a brutal 10-year fight against the disease that began as breast cancer, then spread. She was 52.

Ekman-Larsson travelled home during the Coyotes’ schedule break in January to see Annica.

Leaving his dying mom to return to the NHL was "one of the hardest things I’ve ever done," he said.

She passed away last March, but it was her wish that Ekman-Larsson finish the season. He tried to, but finally poured out his grief to teammates and went home in the final week of the regular season.

"I look at it a little bit different now," he said. "You try to have fun and enjoy every chance you get to step on the ice and play in the best league in the world. I think that’s something good in all of this: You start to realize how lucky you are to have a chance to play here and do the thing you love.

"It’s kind of nice for me with the last year I had – my mom passing away – just have this year to get back on my feet and try to have fun again. That helps me with the position we’re in as a team right now."

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Ekman-Larsson also played much of last year with a broken thumb. No wonder his season was a mess. His points fell to 39 from 55 the previous year, and his advanced stats cratered.

A positive possession player throughout his career — impressive considering the quality of the Coyotes and the quality of elite forwards Ekman-Larsson was often deployed against — Arizona generated only 44.9 per cent of even-strength shots when he was on the ice.

Through the Coyotes’ 2-1 win Wednesday against the Vancouver Canucks, he has 33 points in 66 games and his shots-for percentage has rebounded to 51.1 even if his plus/minus is a ghastly minus-35.

"I think OEL from October to now has come a long way in my books in terms of playing our system," Tocchet said. "I think at first he was hesitant; he wasn’t used to some of the things. And he wasn’t used to me. Now he’s very comfortable and we have a great relationship and I think he’s played really well for us."

To provide Ekman-Larsson emotional support, the Coyotes last summer signed his younger brother, Kevin, to a minor-league contract with the Tucson Roadrunners, about a two-hour drive from Oliver’s home in Scottsdale.

"He’s close to me," Oliver said. "I’m really happy that the organization gave him a chance to come over here, to get away from home a little bit because it wasn’t easy for him last year. He was around everything.

"It’s a difficult time of the year because I start thinking about my mom a little bit more. I know she wanted me to keep going and do what I love to do."

He wants to keep doing it for the Coyotes when his six-year, $33-million contract expires after next season. But that won’t be his decision entirely. Although general manager John Chayka has said numerous times he’d like to re-sign Ekman-Larsson, the defenceman could still be traded.

"I feel like I could take the easy way out, but that’s not my personality," Ekman-Larsson said. "I want to be the guy who turns it around and really be a difference-maker."

In Arizona. The Coyotes want that, too.

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