Entering the final season of a six-year contract, 27-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson was lining up to be a sought-after UFA defenceman next summer. But instead of this developing into a storyline for the 2017-18 season, Ekman-Larsson signed an eight-year extension with Arizona on July 1, the first day he was eligible for a new contract.
The new contract, which kicks in next season, comes with an $8.25 million cap hit.
In the middle of his prime years, it wouldn’t have been shocking to see Ekman-Larsson consider other options. After all, the Coyotes have made the playoffs just twice in his career, and missed out the past six seasons.
And although Arizona finished at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in 2017-18 and 25 points out of the playoffs, there is a reason to believe they could surprise in 2018-19. It was one of the reasons Ekman-Larsson was happy to sign on so early.
“I’m very excited about our team,” Ekman-Larsson told NHL.com last month. “Obviously, I looked around a little bit and looked at the options I had because I felt I needed to do my research so I could confidently say I made the right decision. It felt great to stay in Arizona.”
The Coyotes made a big splash in the summer months, trading Max Domi to Montreal for Alex Galchenyuk, who could be given another shot at his natural centre position. The Canadiens gave up on Galchenyuk down the middle, but his best NHL season came when he played at that position. They also signed UFA Michael Grabner, who is a top-10 even strength goal scorer over the past two seasons.
But the biggest reason for optimism is how much better the Coyotes played over the final three-plus months of last year. After starting the season 9-26-5, Arizona went 20-14-7 after Jan. 1, the ninth-best record in the conference. Its defence also improved and allowed the 10th-fewest shots league-wide in 2018.
This also helped Antti Raanta fly under the radar with excellent numbers — from Jan. 1 onwards he had among the best numbers among any starting goalie, posting a .942 save percentage and 2.39 GAA.
“If we can start the way we finished last year, it will be a good season,” Ekman-Larsson said.