I had the chance to speak with Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg the other day and I posed the question about Sweden’s defense corps for the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. After all, this will be the first time since NHLers have competed in the Winter Games that the Tre Kronor would be without the services of Nicklas Lidstrom.
Zetterberg was quick to point out, however, that he loves Sweden’s young blueline talent and the first name that came out of his mouth was Phoenix Coyotes staple Oliver-Ekman Larsson, whom the Detroit captain said “is already a star in this league.”
Which is funny, because when the topic of young defensemen comes up, bigger names such as Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo often make the list first. But perhaps that’s because Ekman-Larsson is a bit hidden in the desert.
At just 22 years of age, the sixth overall pick in 2009 is playing more than 25 minutes a night for the Coyotes, leading the next busiest member of the team (Zbynek Michalek) by three and a half minutes per outing. Ekman-Larsson is a defensive stalwart, but he’s also chipping in offensively with six points in 10 games, tied for tops on the team’s blueline with Derek Morris. An intelligent player with size who moves well and is confident with the puck, you wonder how many more headlines he’d get in a bigger market.
Tyler Kennedy has quickly become a valuable addition in San Jose and though the Sharks get a good deal of press, there’s a laundry list of marquee names that generally come before the ex-Penguin: Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, Antti Niemi, Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and now rookie Tomas Hertl.
But Kennedy is a key part of the Sharks’ attack. As the speedster on the team’s second line with Couture and Marleau, he’s pushing the pace, chasing down pucks and making things happen. Though his linemates often end up with the points, Kennedy’s contributions can’t be understated. The fact he brings a Stanley Cup ring with him thanks to his time in Pittsburgh will also help the Sharks when they once again try to break through that Western Conference ceiling and get to the franchise’s first Cup final.
Another player who probably deserves a little more recognition is Frans Nielsen of the Islanders. Again, while New York isn’t a small market, Long Island gets less play than the Broadway Rangers, or even the divisive New Jersey Devils (who also have that only-pro-team-in-the-state thing going on, plus Marty Brodeur) across the state line.
Nielsen is actually tied for the team lead in scoring right now with captain John Tavares, the one player in blue and orange who does get to see his name in national headlines on a regular basis. Both have 11 points in nine games, putting them in a logjam tie for sixth in the NHL.
The Danish Nielsen has always been a toolsy player and can hurt the opposition at both ends of the ice. This year, the Islanders have started the campaign hot on the man advantage and wouldn’t you know it? Nielsen’s an integral part of that power play. With Tavares as the franchise pivot, Nielsen finds himself in a perfect spot as that dangerous No. 2 center who can help in different ways.
These players may not get trophy recognition – although with a monster campaign, Ekman-Larsson at least has the type of game that could garner him Norris support – but ask their teammates and they’d likely tell you it’s much better to play with these guys than against them.