Physical and focused on the little plays, Ekman-Larsson is recapturing his old form

Canucks forward Conor Garland and head coach Travis Green reflect on Oliver Ekman-Larsson's performance so far and praise his leadership in the locker room for the young team.

VANCOUVER – We thought there was a good secret to tell that Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been the best Vancouver Canuck through 10 games, but Henrik Sedin came up with a better one.

“He’s a sneaky-dirty player,” Sedin, the Canucks’ special assistant, revealed Thursday.

That’s not the kind of hockey snipe we expect from a Swede, especially about a countryman who is a member of the same National Hockey League organization.

“Not dirty, sneaky-dirty,” Sedin explained. “Cross-checks after the whistle, stuff like that. Playing against him, I always thought he was way more physical and tough than people realized. I knew he had that part in him.”

Sedin meant this as a compliment. And it is.

The physical engagement Ekman-Larsson has displayed in the first month of the rest of his career is driving all the better-known components of his game to a level the defenceman’s many critics suggested was probably gone forever.

It’s a tiny sample and it would be foolish for even the 30-year-old’s biggest supporters, who include Henrik and Daniel Sedin, to declare July’s blockbuster trade with the Arizona Coyotes a success.

There are 492 games and nearly $43-million owed by the Canucks on the rest of Ekman-Larsson’s contract, but the defenceman has been performing at an elite level unseen since he was getting honourable mentions on Norris Trophy ballots halfway through the last decade.

“I know that I'm a good player still,” Ekman-Larsson told Sportsnet on Thursday. “I know some of the guys (in the media) wanted to say that I'm not, that I'm old. But I feel good about my game. There's still some stuff that I need to clean up at the same time, but I'm still playing good hockey.

“I feel like I've been aggressive, I've been hitting a lot and running around and trying to get into the game that way. At times, I think you can kind of sit back a little bit more and try to let the game come to you. But I think it was important to come in here and show that I really wanted to be here, and show that I really wanted to get better and be a leader for this team for all the young guys.”

Despite playing difficult matchups nightly on a defence pairing with Tyler Myers, Ekman-Larsson’s shots-for percentage of 55.8 leads the Canucks. At five-on-five, Vancouver has outshot opponents 79-65 and outscored them 7-3 with Ekman-Larsson on the ice. His expected goals-for (53.1 per cent) leads the team as does his xGA-per-60 (1.62). He is second in time on ice (24:03) and first in shots on goal (37).

The only other skater in the conversation as best Canuck so far is Conor Garland, the other half of that Arizona trade that saw general manager Jim Benning surrender first- and second-round draft picks and three bad, expiring contracts.

The only thing Ekman-Larsson hasn’t done is score enough, stuck at just one goal and one assist through 10 games despite all those shots on target.

“I want to be a guy who puts up some points as well,” the two-time 20-goal scorer said. “That's probably one of the most frustrating parts.”

It may not be for much longer.

Against the Nashville Predators on Friday night at Rogers Arena, Ekman-Larsson is expected to start on a remade first-unit power play. Canucks star Quinn Hughes, second among NHL defencemen with 47 power-play points since the start of the 2019-20 season, practised Thursday on the second unit after Vancouver went 0-for-6 with the man-advantage in Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers.

With Hughes and Ekman-Larsson, coach Travis Green has the luxury of two left-side studs who combine for 50 minutes of nightly ice time.

“I don't want to say better than we thought, but he's been a real complete player for us,” Green said of Ekman-Larsson. “He's also been a good leader in the room.”

“He looks great, right?” Garland said. “I thought he would look that good. Last year was probably really hard for him. I only had trade rumours from the deadline on, and it bothered me a lot. He had to deal with it all summer (in 2020) and the whole season. It takes a toll on you. Coming here, he's been unbelievable.

“He's really hard to play against defensively. He's kind of, like I said about Petey (Canuck centre Elias Pettersson), he's kind of nasty. He plays like that type of Swede where they're hard to play against. Anytime you're out there with him, in the O-zone you want to get him the puck, and the D-zone if he has it, usually it's an easy breakout, so those guys are hard to find.”

Ekman-Larsson lacks Hughes’ overt flash and flair, but rarely makes a mistake. The Swede is an excellent, agile skater, but it’s all the little plays he makes that have been impressive so far: his body position, stick position, when and how he chooses to be aggressive, how he protects the puck, how quickly and simply he moves it.

“He does so many little things that maybe the average fan doesn’t notice,” Sedin said. “I’m not surprised at all. We all understood the situation he was in in Arizona; he had been there a long time, team was moving in another direction. It weighs on you as a player. I think it weighed on him.

“We all agreed (in hockey operations) he was going to be a good player, and he’d be a good player even if he didn’t have a great start. But for him and the fans, I think it’s really important to get off to a good start. He is showing the kind of player he is.”

Ekman-Larsson thinks he can play even better.

“I mean, that's the goal, right?” He said. “I’m trying to use what I've learned over the years and kind of turn that into something positive, and still learn how to get better at some stuff. I feel like I'm shooting more, and I know when I get the bounces, I'm going to score more.

“I'm not the biggest guy, but I try to play the body as well when I have a chance to do it. I feel like I got away from that a little bit maybe the last couple of years. But that's the way I should play and that's the way I have to play to be successful. Everything else will fall into place. I kind of just wanted to get back to where I was a couple years ago.”

He’s already there. The challenge now is to sustain it.

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