EDMONTON -- In the first game in which he wore a National Hockey League uniform other than the Arizona Coyotes’, Oliver Ekman-Larsson logged 23:53 of ice time, played half of the third period and overtime, and finished with three hits and one goal. He also wore an ‘A’ for the Vancouver Canucks.
Wednesday night was a pretty good start to the rest of his career.
It may be years before we know if the Canucks were right to gamble on the Swedish defenceman who arrived in July’s blockbuster trade with a balance of $43.56 million payable over the next six years.
But from the first day of training camp, Ekman-Larsson hasn’t looked like the defenceman-in-ruin that many have argued with the surety of analytics.
At worst, the 30-year-old has looked for three weeks like a top-four NHL blue liner. At best, he is showing signs of being the physically-engaged, two-way defenceman who was a regular honourable mention on Norris Trophy ballots until three seasons ago.
“I was telling the guys after a couple training camp skates there, I felt like I was 18 again,” Ekman-Larsson said before the Canucks opened their season with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday. “I was running around and hitting people and just playing with that chip on my shoulder a little bit. It feels like a fresh start.”
Paired with towering Tyler Myers, who finally banked some goodwill from Canuck fans by crushing the hitman -- Duncan Keith -- who got Daniel Sedin a decade ago, Ekman-Larsson was one of five Vancouver skaters to finish in positive territory analytically against the Oilers.
In the Swede’s 7:18 of five-on-five ice time against Connor McDavid, the Canucks outshot the Oilers 3-2.
Afterward, Ekman-Larsson said he was “honoured” to be named an alternate captain on his new team.
“I think he looks a lot like the player we envisioned,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “I've been impressed with his leadership qualities as well, his practice habits. He seems very excited to be here. We're happy with the transition so far. He's a good player.”
“I expected it to be a hard move, obviously, after being in Arizona for so long and building a life there,” Ekman-Larsson, whose rookie season with the Coyotes was 2010-11, said of the transition. “But the guys have been unbelievable here, just welcoming me right away since Day 1. So it's been a little bit easier than what I expected. But at the same time, it was hard. I think it was more mentally hard than physically. But I feel great now and it's fun to be here and I'm super excited to get going.”
Ekman-Larsson said he feels refreshed, which is what he hoped when he finally agreed to the Coyotes’ request that he waive his no-movement clause after an unhappy 2021 season when the defenceman played for a team that he knew wanted to get rid of him and his contract.
Despite that untenable situation, he said he will always be grateful to the Coyotes for drafting him sixth overall in 2009 and allowing him to build his NHL career in the desert.
He has done what he can to keep the cut clean.
“They're a big part of who I am and why I'm here,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I have a lot to thank them for. But it's good timing for all of us to get a fresh start here and they get to move on, too.
“I didn't even go back to Arizona before I came over here (from Sweden this fall). I sold my house. I think it might take a little bit of time to, you know, to kind of get past all that. But I feel great. I'm all-in here and feel great about being here and super excited to be here. But it was tough, that's for sure.”
In his interview with Sportsnet, Ekman-Larsson reiterated the accountability he voiced immediately after the trade: that he didn’t play as well as he’d like the last few seasons in Arizona and he needs to do better in Vancouver.
But he also flatly rejects the argument that he is a shadow of the player he was, that his best years are gone and irretrievable.
“I've never been a guy who listens to what everybody else thinks,” he said. “It hasn't been that bad that everyone wants it to sound like. I mean, I'll be the first guy to admit that I haven't been playing good hockey, but I don't feel like I'm washed up or anything. I still feel like my best years are ahead. I've been training better than ever the last two summers, even if the 40s (Green’s infamous training-camp skate) was tough. I feel like I have a lot in me left.
“I'm here to help the team win. That's what I'm all for -- just help the young guys out. It's going to be fun to get a fresh start and just prove that I'm a good player still.
“The hockey career is so short. You get to do it for 10, 15 years if you're fortunate. I always want people to remember me for who I am -- not just the hockey player. That's always how I've lived my life. When you're young and you're getting into the league, you just want to stay in the league. But now it's more about winning. So yeah, I want more than previous years. That's why I picked Vancouver. I think we have something good here.”