Oliver Ekman-Larsson. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)
With his 21st goal of the season, Coyotes blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson set the record for goals in a single season by a Swedish defenseman. But it’s his all around game that should have the NHL on watch, because Arizona has a number one defenseman who is only getting better.
It didn’t look like much – a quick shot from the blueline that found its way past Buffalo Sabres goaltender Matt Hackett – but Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s 21st goal of the season was a huge one. With the marker, he became the first Swedish defenseman to ever score 21 goals in a season.
You read that correctly. On a list of blueliners that includes Hall of Famer Borje Salming, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom and active defensemen Victor Hedman, Alex Edler, Niklas Kronwall and Erik Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson became the first to 21 goals. And it’s not even surprising because with each passing game Ekman-Larsson only better.
When the trade deadline was nearing, reports surfaced that, for the right price, Ekman-Larsson could be had from the Coyotes. Right before the deadline, Arizona GM Don Maloney told Ottawa radio station TSN 1200, “Shane Doan is not going anywhere. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a player we would certainly be very, very reluctant to part with.”
But even the consideration of trading Ekman-Larsson is absurd, although the return for the Coyotes would have been gigantic were he to be dealt. At 23, Ekman-Larsson will be the backbone of Arizona’s blueline for years and, no matter who the Coyotes land at the draft, he’ll be a centerpiece for the franchise.
With Max Domi and Anthony Duclair on their way to Arizona as soon as next season, and the potential for the Coyotes to add Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid or Noah Hanifin in June, Ekman-Larsson’s continued emergence as a standout for the Coyotes has to have fans excited.
For the second straight year – and on a much, much worse team – Ekman-Larsson stands to post 44 points, tying his career high. He’s scoring like no other defenseman on Arizona’s roster can and like few in the league are capable of. His 21 goals aren’t just the most in a single season by a Swedish defenseman, though. With 21 tallies, Ekman-Larsson leads all defensemen in the NHL in goals. He’s also tied for 21st in scoring by blueliners with 40 points. And while most of the players ahead of him are on playoff-bound teams, Ekman-Larsson is toiling on the lowly Coyotes and still lighting the lamp.
His ability to put points on the board is enough to consider Ekman-Larsson the future of the Coyotes’ blueline, but there’s a defensive element to his game – one that made Keith Yandle expendable – that goes underappreciated. Maybe it’s because he plays in Arizona, or maybe it’s belief that Yandle was the superior defenseman, but Ekman-Larsson should be making believers out of those who want to see a pure two-way rearguard.
Of the nearly 100 defenseman who have played 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, Ekman-Larsson, largely due to the ineptitude of this season’s Coyotes, starts the fourth fewest shifts in the offensive zone, a mere 26.3 percent. Yet, Ekman-Larsson ranks 36th in shot attempts for percentage at 52 percent.
When you think about the praise Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie have gotten for their play on for the Calgary Flames, people point to their defensive acumen and offensive ability. They also point to the sturdy underlying numbers on a team that’s far from an analytical darling. Well, of the 27 defensemen who have started less than 30 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, Giordano has the best shot attempts for percentage relative to his team at 5.0 percent, meaning his shots attempts for percentage is that much better than other Flames. T.J. Brodie comes in third with 3.2 percent. Between them in second place? Ekman-Larsson, with 3.7 percent.
When the Coyotes look back, they’ll be forever thankful they held onto Ekman-Larsson. From his ability to jump into the rush to his ever-growing skill in his own zone, he’s proving he’s every bit the cornerstone defenseman Arizona had hoped he could be. Without a true, top-flight blueliner, a rebuild is infinitely more difficult. Ask the Edmonton Oilers. The Coyotes have their number one guy, and he’s a 23-year-old with 300-plus games of experience.
In a few seasons, Ekman-Larsson will be anchoring the defense and turning heads when Arizona is nearing a turnaround and looking like a team on the brink of competitiveness.
The Norris Trophy may not be calling this season and he may never get his name etched on the award, but Ekman-Larsson is a star in the making. Setting a new high for Swedish defensemen is an incredible achievement, but it would be crazy to think this will be the pinnacle of his career. He’s got more to give, and in many ways thanks to Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes' future looks bright already.