Commentary

Take notice of Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Swedish star just one of those elite players who don't come around very often

Updated: December 20, 2013, 3:24 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- As we sat down for an interview Wednesday afternoon, Oliver Ekman-Larsson's eyes lit up when he was told an all-time great had been eyeing him.

The message was from Nick Lidstrom, who was kindly responding to a question this week from ESPN.com about his 22-year-old Swedish countryman, Ekman-Larsson.

"Can I read it?" Ekman-Larsson asked.

Well, of course.

And here's what he read:

[+] EnlargeEkman-Larsson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIf all goes according to plan, the Olympics will garner Oliver Ekman-Larsson more national recognition.
"I think Oliver is starting to establish himself as an elite defenseman in the NHL," Lidstrom wrote. "His ice time has increased, and you can tell that the Coyotes are counting on him as well. He is a very skilled player and a great skater. He sees the ice real well and is making good decisions with the puck.

"He will get better when he gains more experience. The Olympics will help with that."

Ekman-Larsson handed back the phone, a humble smile piercing his lips.

As anyone could have easily guessed, No. 5 was Ekman-Larsson's idol growing up.

"I watched Nick Lidstrom a lot when I was younger," Ekman-Larsson said. "He was a great player in this league for such a long time. Probably the best D-man who ever played in this league, too. I watched him a lot growing up."

Comparisons to Lidstrom should be sacrilege, just like a comparison to Bobby Orr should never be slapped on any kid, either. But if you're going to talk about Ekman-Larsson's continued arc, his smooth-skating style and tape-to-tape passing accuracy, which takes your breath away at times, um yeah, it kind of makes you think of somebody who used to play in Detroit.

"It's amazing what he's done," Red Wings star blueliner Niklas Kronwall responded when asked by ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance this week about OEL's growth as a player. "Ever since he came in, was 18 when he came in, and how good he's been ever since the first time he's came here. Over the years, he's learned. Right now he's one of the top defensemen in the league both offensively and defensively. He carries the puck like not a lot of other guys can do. So smart out there. He always puts himself in a good spot. Never seems to run out of time or put himself in trouble."

In his fourth NHL season, Ekman-Larsson has established himself as one of the top 10 blueliners in the game, but whether fans, media and even other teams around the league have fully realized just how good he is, well, that's up for debate.

"I don't think so, I don't think he gets nearly enough attention," fellow Coyotes top blueliner Keith Yandle told ESPN.com. "I don't know if it's because we're out in the West, in Phoenix, and you don't get as much attention as he's probably deserving of. Sometimes that's a good thing, though, you can fly under the radar and play your game, especially for a young kid. English is his second language, and he's in a new place. As time goes by, the Olympics will obviously help him get more national recognition. But he's one of those elite players that you just don't see every day."

Sochi should indeed be a coming-out party of sorts for Ekman-Larsson. Just don't tell him he's Sochi-bound just yet.

"We don't know yet if I'm going to play there yet, but obviously I want to make it, I hope to make it, I think I have a good chance," he said.

Kid, you're going to Sochi.

"He's going to be one of the guys logging a lot of minutes [in Sochi]," said Kronwall, a key leader on the Swedish Olympic team. "He's one of the best we have. He's going to log a lot of ice time and be a leader both on and off the ice for sure."

The powerhouse Swedes should have quite the blue line, led by Kronwall, Ekman-Larsson, as well as options such as Erik Karlsson, Jonas Brodin, Victor Hedman, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Alexander Edler, among others.

"There's a lot of good defensemen from the NHL and also some good defensemen back home in Sweden, it's going to be tough to make that team," Ekman-Larsson said.

Among the league leaders at more than 25 minutes played per game, Ekman-Larsson's ice time is a constant focus for Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett.

On a perfect night, Tippett would rather have Ekman-Larsson at around 20 minutes, believing that 20 fresh minutes are more effective minutes than 25.

"He plays hard minutes all the time," Tippett told ESPN.com this past Wednesday. "PK is hard minutes, playing against top players is hard minutes, and then you expect to have the dynamic of helping our power play and the dynamic of helping our offense. So, they're not secondary minutes, they're hard minutes all the way around. If he has the right energy, he can be more efficient in those minutes, rather than play too many minutes and trying to control his game. That's the happy balance we're trying to find with him."

It's up to Tippett to find that balance, because you know Ekman-Larsson would play 40 minutes a night if they let him.

[+] EnlargeEkman-Larsson
Jeff Vinnick/Getty ImagesWithout question, Oliver Ekman-Larsson has established himself as an elite defenseman in the NHL.
"I know the team counts on me, believes in me and trusts me," said Ekman-Larsson (@OEL--23 on Twitter). "It's a lot of fun to have that trust. I want to be out there as much as I can."

Tippett isn't one to throw out compliments like they're candy. But it's clear, when asked about Ekman-Larsson's growth as an NHLer, the veteran coach knows a stud when he sees one.

"The biggest factor with him is that he wants to be a top player, he pays the price to be a top player, he thinks the game, he wants to learn the game. He thinks like a top player," Tippett said.

"If [goalie] Mike Smith is the key to winning for our team, 1A is Oliver in the way he plays," added Phoenix GM Don Maloney. "It's not only his puck game on offense, he plays against the other team's top players every night, he plays our most minutes every night, and the exciting thing for Coyotes fans is that his game is getting better. He's still just maturing as a player. So the upside is tremendous for him. We're thankful we got him on a long-term deal."

Isn't that the truth, right? Heck of a job by Maloney last season to get Ekman-Larsson signed to a six-year, $33 million extension, a deal which Phoenix needed the NHL to sign off on because the team still had not had its ownership mess settled at the time.

At a $5.5 million cap hit through the 2018-19 season, well, that's just an incredible bargain when you consider where salaries are going to go for elite players with the rising salary cap. To get it done, Maloney had to go against one of his own pet peeves.

"I really don't like doing contracts during the season. I think it messes with people's minds," Maloney said. "But in that case, what really spurred us was the offer sheet on Ryan O'Reilly in Colorado by Calgary last February. We thought, 'If he's getting that, what will happen if Ekman-Larsson ever hits the marketplace?' And everyone in the West knows how good he is. I just thought, 'We cannot as a franchise risk it."'

A wise decision if there ever was one.

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