Ekman-Larsson quietly emerging as Norris Trophy contender

The Vancouver Canucks were caught looking as Oliver Ekman-Larsson went coast-to-coast before getting three chances on net to score. And the third time was the charm.

Last season was so disastrous for the Arizona Coyotes that it only stands to reason something would be lost in plain sight. Especially something great.

And, really, there’s no other way to describe Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s performance under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Not only did his 23 goals establish a new record for Swedish defencemen, it tied for the fourth-best total among all NHL blue-liners over the last two decades.

Ekman-Larsson essentially joined the game’s elite at a time when the Coyotes were lost in the woods. Asked during a recent sitdown what he can do for an encore, he deadpanned: “Score 24.”

“Ah no, don’t expect me to score 23 goals every year,” Ekman-Larsson continued. “But I would love to do it again and that’s one of my goals — to just keep pounding away and keep getting better all over the ice. So we will see.”

The biggest change in his game was a dramatic jump in his shot output, with his total of 264 second among defencemen to Erik Karlsson and 11th overall. He also experienced a spike in shooting percentage, which is why it will be tough to repeat the goal total.

Ekman-Larsson isn’t shy about pointing out that you need some things to go right to have that kind of season — like the looping shot he took from the far blue-line in January that fooled Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier.

“Yeah, and like two days after that, I had a lucky one in Montreal,” he said. “Just from the corner. I had a lucky year.”

Well, there was obviously plenty of skill involved too.

Big things have been expected of Ekman-Larsson since he was drafted sixth overall in 2009, and his career has maintained a steady upward progression since. One scout for a Western Conference-based team says the 24-year-old is now playing at a “Norris Trophy level.”

“He needs a better team around him, an elite partner and more attention,” said the scout. “This guy is great.”

While he’s bound to be overlooked a little bit while playing in the desert, last year’s Coyotes season didn’t help his cause. The team finished with a franchise-worst 56 points, which in some ways makes his personal performance more impressive.

Staying motivated isn’t easy when the playoffs are already out of sight by the Christmas break.

“Losing sucks, to be honest, but I think I learned a lot from that year, too,” said Ekman-Larsson. “I know it’s a team sport, but I just tried to stay focused on what I had to do. I think I did a good job of that and had a good year, but at the same time, you want your team to have success.”

With Arizona still in rebuilding mode, any success will have to be measured in a larger perspective this season. About the only guarantee is that Ekman-Larsson will be the best player on a team expected to skew younger.

He will also be busy away from the rink, with his clothing line — OEL of Sweden — starting to make some inroads in North America. Ekman-Larsson and his father launched that with the help of some friends two years ago and they’ve seen it take off back home.

“I like clothes and fashion overall and I think it’s fun to do something when you’re still playing,” he said. “It’s nice to have something besides hockey during the off-season, too — just clear your head a little bit and focus on something else.”

Skating into the fashion world has been done before in his homeland, where Hockey Hall of Famer Borje Salming runs a successful underwear line.

Asked which Swedish hockey player produces the best undergarments, Ekman-Larsson laughed: “You know the answer.”

“Obviously, he’s huge in Sweden but hopefully one day I will get there.”

Don’t bet against it — or him.

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