This could be the breakout year for Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Perhaps age and playing venue are the prime factors from stopping Phoenix defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson from spreading his name across the NHL landscape.
At 22, Ekman-Larsson is merely beginning his NHL journey. A former No. 1 pick and sixth selection overall of the Coyotes in the 2009 draft, Ekman-Larsson is entering his third full NHL season. The campaign ahead could likely become his “breakout year.”
While he shines in the desert, Ekman-Larsson’s stature may not be fully appreciated. That’s because the Coyotes visit the hockey meccas of Montreal, Toronto, Boston and Ottawa only once a season, and that puts Ekman-Larsson at a popular disadvantage.
Still, he managed to finish seventh in the 2013 Norris Award balloting. Along with teammate Keith Yandle, the Phoenix pair were the only two from the same team to finish in the top 12 among Norris vote-getters.
When the Coyotes signed Ekman-Larsson to a six-year, $33 million deal last March, the team clearly recognized his value.
While Ekman-Larsson may be hidden at least temporarily from the national and international spotlight, he is definitely not skating under the radar in the desert. Emerging as an important contributor, the native of Karlskrona, Sweden would rather do his talking on the ice.
Modest to a fault, Ekman-Larsson looks upon his game as developing and says any accolades in the past are forgotten.
“I just want to get better in every phase of the game,” he said. “Right now, I’m not satisfied playing with the puck in the neutral zone so I’m working on that. I think my skating is OK, but I want to take that to the next level.”
Coaches refrain from putting labels on players, but Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett thinks Ekman-Larsson is reaching a certain echelon.
“I would say he is among the elite defenseman in our league,” Tippett said. “By elite, I mean he plays both sides of the puck very well and plays well in every situation. Whether it’s on the power play, killing penalties or occasionally double-shifting, he does things at a very high level.”
While he may not receive significant attention from Don Cherry and the Hockey Night in Canada crowd, Ekman-Larsson is now on the same playing field with 2013 Norris winner P.K. Subban of Montreal and other notables such as former Norris winner Duncan Keith of Chicago, Ryan Suter of Minnesota, Shea Weber of Nashville and Kris Letang of Pittsburgh.
His speed, ability to swiftly move the puck and intelligently read the ice separates Ekman-Larsson from most defensemen. Plus, his numbers also point to a worthy contributor.
Ekman-Larsson finished fifth in scoring for Phoenix last season and second among Coyotes' defensemen behind Yandle. He topped the Coyotes in assists with 21, time on the ice per game (25:05) and shifts per game with nearly 29 per contest.
“In Phoenix, he tends to fly under the radar screen, but we know what he can do,” goalie Mike Smith said. “What stands him apart is how smart he is and his intelligence on the ice. He’s smart and can play defense. That’s a great combination and we‘re lucky to have him.”
While Ekman-Larsson is moving into the upper pinnacle of NHL defensemen, pursuit of the Norris Trophy remains on his radar screen.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.