DETROIT – Mike Babcock isn’t one to liberally offer extraordinary compliments about young players.
So, when the Detroit Red Wings coach used the term “Nick Lidstrom-like thinker” Thursday morning to describe 20-year old Phoenix defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, it raised a few eyebrows among the media contingent talking to Babcock.
The Swedish-born Ekman-Larsson, leads Coyotes defensemen in goals scored with five and has nine points in 27 games coming into the game Thursday against Lidstrom’s Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. Like Lidstrom, he’s a good skater and moves the puck well – but he’s also showing some of the same ability to think a little like his boyhood idol in terms of positioning.
“He’s a heady player,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “He makes some hard plays look simple and that’s the greatest thing about Lidstrom. He makes the game look easy. (Ekman-Larsson) is a young player that obviously has some growth (left), but he makes good plays and decision-making seems simple for him. That’s probably what (Babcock) is referring to.”
Ekman-Larsson also emulates Lidstrom a little bit off the ice, by downplaying his own abilities and talking more about team goals than individual. He does, however, admit that he’s picked up a few things in his own game just by watching Lidstrom closely over the years.
“He was my idol when I grew up, so I mean he’s a really good player and I always watched him when I was a kid,” Ekman-Larsson said after Phoenix’s skate Thursday. “I just tried to learn something about what Nick does.”
He’s still watching, too – whenever he’s not playing against the Red Wings.
“He’s still the best (defenseman) in the League, so I can still (learn),” Ekman-Larsson said. “I tried to play like him when I was younger … but I can’t lose focus watching him out there. I just have to play my game.”
Ekman-Larson made his NHL debut last season and scored one goal to go with 10 assists in 48 games for Phoenix. This season, he’s already more than quadrupled his goal output and is starting to show the same kind of ability as Lidstrom to usually put himself in the right spot and play the best angles.
He learned it from watching the best.
“He’s a good thinker and he reads the ice awesome,” Ekman-Larsson said of Lidstrom, Detroit’s captain. “I like how he handles the puck and makes good plays.”
Tippett likes what’s he’s now seeing out his own Swedish blueliner.
“He’s got poise with the puck to go with it,” the Coyotes coach said. “He’ll grow into being a very good defenseman in this League for a long time.”