Just a year removed from his rookie season, Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson
has evolved from a player getting his first taste of the NHL to a roster mainstay who is depended upon in key moments of every game.
It’s an evolution the young Swede and the Coyotes coaching staff have worked hard to make happen.
“I’ve played more and I feel more confident out there,” said Ekman-Larsson, who averages 22:02 of ice time per game. “…This season is my first real NHL season. (Associate Coach) Jim (Playfair) and ‘Tip’ (Head Coach Dave Tippett) have helped me out a lot out there and have tried to help me get better everyday.”
At this time last year, Ekman-Larsson, 20, was in the final weeks of his first NHL season. It was a season in which he played a limited role with Phoenix and spent another 15 games in the American Hockey League. While with Phoenix, Ekman-Larsson notched 11 points and a plus-minus rating of plus-three in 48 regular-season games, with an average ice time of 15:02.
But due to injuries along the blueline and his accelerated development, Ekman-Larsson has taken a big step forward this season. He has played in all 77 regular-season games so far, and has notched 12 goals - only four other NHL defensemen have scored more - and 18 assists. His aforementioned average ice time is second only to Keith Yandle
It’s a major jump in playing time, especially considering that when he played in Leksands of the Sweden-2 League, his career high for games played was 52.
“It’s a big step to play 82 games instead of like 46 games back home in Sweden, but I had a really good summer and I feel stronger,” Ekman-Larsson said.
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Ekman-Larsson added that other factors, such as adjusting to the smaller North American ice surface and proper conditioning, allowed him to earn that additional ice time and accept that higher workload throughout the season.
Not only has Ekman-Larsson, whom the Coyotes selected with the sixth overall pick of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, taken on a bigger responsibility on the ice, but he also has made a positive impact in the dressing room. The close camaraderie of the team has allowed him to mesh right in and not feel the communication barrier that some young European players sometimes feel.
“He fits in great with the North American guys,” Yandle said. “He’s got a great sense of humor; he’s good around the locker room and it’s fun to see him everyday.”
And now that Ekman-Larsson has become a mainstay in the lineup, he is looking forward to helping the team qualify for the post-season.
“I just try to play my game to help the team and make it to the playoffs,” Ekman-Larsson said. “…We have the chance to make the playoffs, and I think we’re going to make it. It’s fun to play for something.”