TORONTO -- They're everywhere in the NHL these days, young Swedish defensemen who have been influenced by Nicklas Lidstrom, the legendary Detroit Red Wings defenseman.
Back when Peter Forsberg was at his best, most young hockey players from Sweden wanted to be like him, a forward. But then Lidstrom started collecting Stanley Cup titles and Norris Trophy wins and Olympic gold, and that all changed.
"You look around the League and see all the young [Swedish] defensemen," Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin said. "When you grew up in Sweden before Nicklas became the player he was, everybody wanted to be a forward. When he played his best, the most skilled guys back home wanted to be like him and play defense. Our best players are defensemen."
Now there is Victor Hedman in Tampa Bay, John Klingberg in Dallas, Jonas Brodin in Minnesota, Hampus Lindholm in Anaheim, Adam Larsson in New Jersey, Mattias Ekholm in Nashville.
There are also a couple dandies in Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators and Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Arizona Coyotes.
Ekman-Larsson led all NHL defensemen with 23 goals last season, two more than Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner. Lidstrom had the record for most goals by a Swedish defenseman in a season at 20. But then Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson zoomed on by.
"Every D-man who comes from Sweden has watched him play," Ekman-Larsson, 24, said. "He was my idol growing up and he's the reason I started to play 'D.'
"He was the best. He could do so many things. Yet, he kept the game simple."
Ekman-Larsson has met his idol twice. The first time was a brief encounter on Nov. 8, 2010 in his rookie season at Joe Louis Arena.
Lidstrom scored midway through the third period to lift the Red Wings into a tie with the Coyotes.
Moments after Henrik Zetterberg scored in overtime to give the Red Wings the win, Ekman-Larsson skated over to Lidstrom and asked him for his stick. The Red Wings captain gladly handed it over, but signed it first.
The next time Ekman-Larsson talked to Lidstrom was at the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C., a few months later.
Now, with Lidstrom joining Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin on the Team Sweden advisory board for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Ekman-Larsson will get more opportunity to discuss the game with his idol.
"There will be so many things that I would ask him," Ekman-Larsson said. "I think I'd like to ask him about his leadership in Detroit. I play with a good leader in Arizona with Shane Doan, but I'd like to hear [Lidstrom's] ideas on leadership."
Unfortunately for Ekman-Larsson, he'll have to DVR Lidstrom's Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Nov. 9 because the Coyotes visit the Anaheim Ducks that evening.
"He was an all-around player who kept it simple," Ekman-Larsson said. "He was a good skater and above all he had an unbelievable stick. He scored a lot of points too. He had a good shot.
"It's a lot of things he does right. I watched him a lot and I tried to do what he did. It's not that easy, I can tell you that. I just like the way he kept things simple and made a good first pass every time."
Though Ekman-Larsson makes a good first pass and has a better-than-average shot, he will play a bigger role for Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey than he did for the silver medalists at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Ekman-Larsson began the Olympics playing alongside Karlsson and played well in the opener with assists on Sweden's first two goals in a 4-2 win against the Czech Republic.
However, Ekman-Larsson's ice time dwindled as the tournament progressed. Of the Swedish defensemen who played in all six games, he averaged a team-low 9:43 a game.
"Obviously, I wasn't good enough to play a lot," Ekman-Larsson said, taking the high road. "When I came back from Sochi I learned from the experience and played well.
"Having that many good defensemen is a good problem to have. It's a good thing because you want to improve and be better than the other guys."
Not many have been as good as Ekman-Larsson since the Olympics. His offensive production has been Lidstrom-like with a combined 30 goals and 58 points in his 96 regular-season games since Sochi.
But the Coyotes haven't made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since their run to the 2012 Western Conference Final. Ekman-Larsson hopes to help change that this season.
He likes what he sees with young forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, and the improved depth on the third and fourth lines.
"I think we got away from our defending game that allowed us to go deep in the playoffs," Ekman-Larsson said. "We have to get back to that."
Author: Tim Wharnsby | NHL.com Correspondent