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Ekman-Larsson at his best heading into playoffs

By Jerry Brown - NHL.com Correspondent

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Ekman-Larsson at his best heading into playoffs
A year ago, Oliver Ekman-Larsson was back in the AHL by the time the Coyotes started out in the playoffs, but now the 20-year-old defenseman is a key member of the division champions.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- One year ago, although his talent was apparent and his future ultra-bright, the Coyotes decided Oliver Ekman-Larsson wasn't quite ready for the NHL.

One year later, after finishing his first full regular season in Phoenix logging 22 minutes a night and in the top five in goal scoring among defensemen, soon the question might be whether the League is ready for Ekman-Larsson.

The soft-spoken, 20-year-old Swede is starting to outgrow his facial comparisons to Harry Potter and has now established himself an all-situation, top-flight defenseman -- and if his play during Phoenix's stretch run to the playoffs is any indication, he's ready to play a major role in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ekman-Larsson finished fifth among all defensemen with 13 goals this season, and had five of them during a 10-game, late-season surge when his team needed them the most. He finished the season with 32 points and a label as one of the best young blueliners in the league.

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"He has all the physical skills. He can do anything he wants in this game," said veteran Adrian Aucoin, Ekman-Larsson's defense partner much of the year. "I've played with a lot of talented d-men in this League, and he has as much ability as anyone. He's taken giant steps this year and he's 20 years old. The best is yet to come, and that's going to be something special."

Phoenix captain Shane Doan said one of the most popular topics in the room among veteran players is how good Ekman-Larsson will be one, three or five years from now.

"He's going to be one of the premier players in this league, not just defensemen," Doan said. "It took about five or six games this year before everyone was looking at each other and saying, 'Holy Smokes!' Everyone saw it last year, and that it was coming. It was just a matter of how soon.

"His talent is as good as I've ever played with. People talk about more experience, more beef … but I'll take him right now."

As a 19-year-old last season, the kid they call "OEL" lasted 48 games (one goal, 11 points) before coach Dave Tippett and general manager Don Maloney decided that their defensive diamond needed a little more polishing in the AHL. While the Coyotes reached the playoffs, Ekman-Larsson stayed with San Antonio in the American Hockey League, collecting 10 points in 15 games and another four points in seven World Championship games with Sweden.

"I learned a lot and it was good for me. But you want to be playing with the big guys and I knew that's where I wanted to be," he said. "I worked hard over the summer, a lot of work off the ice to get stronger.

"If I have to block a shot or take a hit or whatever is needed. I wanted to be ready."

The Coyotes expected him to make the team and hoped that this time it would be for good. And in December, Ekman-Larsson showed he was ready.

One night after struggling (a minus-3) in a 4-1 loss at Anaheim, he bounced back and played a major role in a key 4-2 win against Edmonton -- setting up Shane Doan for the go-ahead goal before adding an insurance goal.

A month later Tippett, not known for giving young players a lot rope on the ice, was including Ekman-Larsson in the litany of veteran players the team was counting on and playing him 20, 25 even 30 minutes a night.

"He just wasn't quite there last year. But right from the beginning this year, he proved he was one of our top defensemen and he's finished the season strong," Tippett said. "In any situation, at any time of the game, he's a guy you are comfortable and confident having on the ice."

Like many young Swedish players, Ekman-Larsson grew up in Karlskrona idolizing Detroit Red Wings great Nicklas Lidstrom and had a chance to get to know him last year during All-Star weekend. But he keeps an eye on another countryman on the blue line, Ottawa sensation and Landsbro native Erik Karlsson, who led all NHL defensemen in goals and assists this year.

"We grew up in towns about 45 minutes apart and he's had a great year," Ekman-Larsson said. "He's one year older than me (21) and I'm hoping I can have that kind of season too. Maybe next year."

But right now, the Coyotes are tickled with this year. Keith Yandle struggled offensively at times. David Schlemko and Michal Rozsival had long-term injures and Aucoin has a series of minor ones. For much of the season, Ekman-Larsson was the steadiest hand on the blue line.

Coaches and teammates point to his smooth skating and extra gear that jumps out on the ice. His size (6-foot-2, 190) and wingspan that covers a great area and allows him to get back into plays and extract the puck with a poke check. He showed an unflappable demeanor and, as the season wore on, more affinity for the physical side of the game.

Doan likens him to a physical version of Teppo Numminen, the anchor of the Phoenix defense for a decade who was nicknamed "The Repo Man,” for his ability to reclaim the puck from an opponent.

"(Ekman-Larsson's) recovery ability is incredible and he makes plays work with very subtle moves that the great players have," Doan said. "He's more physical than Repo, and he shoots the puck harder. He's going to be fun to watch for a long time."

The bigger the games became, the more he stepped up. Over a six-game span in mid-March, with the Coyotes struggling offensively, Ekman-Larsson scored against Nashville, Vancouver, Calgary and Dallas and had six points in all.

"I'm playing with really good players who are giving me the puck in good situations -- and there is some luck in there, too," Ekman-Larsson said. "I love playing lots of minutes, and the way to earn more time is to play well and help your team. That's what I'm trying to do."

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