Neither Oliver Ekman-Larsson nor his Phoenix Coyotes have been front-page NHL news prior to this season. However, both the Swedish defenseman and his team – who combined to outlast the St. Louis Blues 3-2 in overtime Tuesday – are becoming stories nobody can ignore anymore.
Ekman-Larsson scored the overtime winner and added an assist to help improve the surging Coyotes’ record to 13-4-2 (8-2-0 in their past 10 games) and move them into a three-way tie for second place in the Western Conference (although the two teams they’re tied with have at least a game in hand).
Ekman-Larsson’s two-point night gave him four goals and a team-best 15 points in 19 games, and he’s posted two goals and nine points in his past eight games. He plays an average of 25:51 a night – ninth-best in the league and nearly three-and-a-half minutes more than the next most-utilized Coyote (Keith Yandle, at 22:32). His contract that pays him $5.5 million a year through the summer of 2019 is looking more like a John Tavares-caliber bargain every minute.
And get this: he’s 22 years old. That giant gulping sound you’re hearing is coming from Phoenix’s opponents for the next decade.
Certainly, the Coyotes’ win over the equally formidable Blues wasn’t all about Ekman-Larsson. Mike Smith was stellar again, stopping 35 of 37 shots; and Phoenix did well in the faceoff circle (winning 30 of 55 draws) and on the blocked shot front (out-blocking St. Louis 17-11). But who’s kidding who? We know Ekman-Larsson is the jewel in their crown. We know he’s their most important player. And we know he’s in a position – both in the NHL and for his homeland at the 2014 Sochi Games – to assert his dominance on a global stage.
If he’s not the best defenseman on the planet – and Minnesota’s Ryan Suter might have something to say about that – Ekman-Larsson is in the conversation. If he’s not, you’re having a hockey-related talk with dummies.