Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson poses for a picture after giving a young fan his stick. Source: Getty Images
Oliver Ekman-Larsson endured injury and emotional trauma last season. This year, he's been mentioned in trade speculation – which was vehemently denied by GM John Chayka – as the Arizona Coyotes struggle through yet another trying campaign.
By Robert Mackenzie
It took some time for Oliver Ekman-Larsson to get used to life in Arizona. The dry desert heat was a far cry from the cold, snowy winters in his tiny hometown of Tingsryd, where the weather is much more like its sister city, Lindstrom, Minn. “It was a weird feeling, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m so used to having cold and winter when you play hockey back home in Sweden. I was used to the snow and stuff, and now you walk over in shorts and flip flops.”
Eight years later, Ekman-Larsson has acclimatized to the desert. He’s now a staple in Arizona and one of the few recognizable faces on a team that has undergone major turnover in recent years.
After captain Shane Doan retired in August, Ekman-Larsson became the longest-serving active Coyote. Since the franchise moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996, he ranks eighth on the team’s all-time scoring list, third in points by a defenseman and first in goals by a defenseman – all by the age of 26. Yet he doesn’t receive the same attention as other elite blueliners around the league. A two-time top-10 finisher in Norris Trophy voting, Ekman-Larsson remains one of the NHL’s more underrated defensemen. “He’s been in Arizona his whole career and probably hasn’t got that much attention,” said Erik Karlsson, who has played with Ekman-Larsson on Sweden’s national squad. “But everyone who watches hockey and knows hockey knows he’s a quality defenseman in this league and has been ever since he got in the league.”
After struggling on the ice and dealing with tragedy away from it in 2016-17, Ekman-Larsson has slowly returned to peak form. And despite Arizona’s continued struggles this season, his goal is to lead a young Coyotes team to a future of contention.
Going into last season, Ekman-Larsson was focused on improving the team’s play after two straight years near the bottom of the standings. He was coming off back-to-back 20-goal campaigns – the only defenseman other than Karlsson and Brent Burns to do so since Ekman-Larsson’s rookie year in 2010-11. “It’s nice when things are going good for yourself, but it doesn’t really matter in this league, because it’s a team sport, and if you don’t make the playoffs, you’re not going to be happy about your game,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I don’t care if I’m putting up 50 or 60 points if we’re not playing good as a team.”
His 2016-17 season got off to a rocky start, however, as he broke his left thumb early after being slashed. He said he couldn’t shoot or pass the puck properly for three months, which was reflected in his total shot attempts on the year – his lowest in four seasons.
But the injury was nothing compared to the emotional pain Ekman-Larsson was dealing with behind the scenes.
His mother, Annika, passed away late last season after a long battle with cancer. She was only 51. Although she’d been sick for more than 10 years, her cancer progressed at the start of last season. “I don’t think I’m going to go through anything like that again ever. That was probably the toughest year of my life,” Ekman-Larsson said. “She wanted me to stay over here, and she wanted me to do what I love doing, and I did that for her.”
Ekman-Larsson’s mother was always involved in his hockey life, ever since he was a kid. Even though Sweden is eight hours ahead of Arizona time, she never missed him play. “She stayed up all night watching the games, (then would go) straight to work. Doing that when you’re sick, that’s pretty impressive. She was a strong, strong woman.”
With his mother fighting for her life back home in Sweden, Ekman-Larsson found it difficult to focus on hockey at all last season. His 12 goals and 39 points were his lowest full-season totals since 2011-12, as he and the team struggled through another losing, rebuilding year.
In the summer, however, a flurry of moves saw Arizona bring in a new coach, starting goalie, top-line center and two top-four defensemen. Also factoring in a full season of rookie Clayton Keller, many expected the Coyotes to improve upon their 28th-place finish and contend for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. So to say Arizona has been a disappointment this season is an understatement. The Coyotes lost their first 11 games and took until Nov. 16 to get their first regulation win. They've improved – a bit – since the first month of the season, but remain mired in last place overall in the NHL standings.
Still, there have been a few bright spots. Keller vaulted into the lead for the Calder Trophy with a red-hot start. He has since cooled off, but he's still in the rookie race. Youngsters Brendan Perlini, Christian Fischer and Christian Dvorak have shown promise.
Ekman-Larsson continues to lead Arizona in ice time (24:30 per game), as he has the past five seasons, logging heavy minutes in every situation. He’s also formed chemistry with newcomer Jason Demers, who was acquired in a trade with Florida in September. “He’s a strong skater, passer, he’s got a great shot, and I’m just trying to complement those things,” Demers said. “He’s an all-star. He’s been in the league for a long time. He’s played at an elite level.”
With Arizona’s poor start, rumors began to spread about whether the team would consider trading its star defenseman for a Matt Duchene-like package of assets before Ekman-Larsson’s contract expires in 2019. But the Coyotes have plenty of prospects and also plenty of losing seasons as of late. They boast the league’s third-youngest roster, and the line of Lawson Crouse, Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley on the Tucson Roadrunners was one of the AHL’s highest-scoring units.
What the Coyotes don’t have is another No. 1 defenseman – a young, foundational piece who has been through the highs and many lows and wants to stay in Arizona and help turn the team into a contender. “You build teams around No. 1 defensemen,” said Arizona GM John Chayka. “Oliver is a No. 1 defenseman. If you trade an Oliver Ekman-Larsson, you start looking for Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Honestly, I don’t even like talking about the concept, because I find it silly. We’ve got prospects continuing to come in waves. We want to surround Oliver with great players, give him a chance to lead a team…and be a part of something special.”
The last time the team made the playoffs was in 2012. Ekman-Larsson is the only Coyotes player remaining from that squad, and he wants to be there when they get back. “I love Arizona,” he said. “I love the weather, I love the organization. There have been some rough years, but at the same time I want to be the guy who turns it around, and I think that’s why I’m still here.”