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Emerging Ekman-Larsson has Coyotes Optimistic

by David Satriano / Arizona Coyotes

NEW YORK -- The Arizona Coyotes finished last season with the worst record in the Western Conference, the second-worst record in the NHL, and their worst record since moving to Arizona prior to the 1996-97 season.

The Coyotes (24-50-8) couldn't score and were scored on too much, with a goal differential of minus-102. Not much went right for Arizona, which missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight season.

But plenty of moves were made this offseason to try to correct these issues.

Arizona signed experienced backup goalie Anders Lindback, gritty forwards Steve Downie and John Scott, and Antoine Vermette and Brad Richardson to hopefully alleviate some of the offensive woes.

Here are four other reasons for optimism in Arizona:

Ekman-Larsson

Oliver Ekman-Larsson: The 25-year old established himself as one of the best defenseman in the NHL in the past two seasons. Ekman-Larsson had a career high 23 goals and 43 points, including 20 power-play points, and led NHL defensemen in goals and power-play goals (10) last season. He also scored in the clutch, with seven game-winning goals, including three in overtime.

"He is, in my opinion, one of the best defensemen in the NHL and continuing to grow," General Manager Don Maloney said. "I think his game, from an offensive standpoint, he continues to drive our offense. But people don't appreciate even his defending ability because he gets matched up against the best players on every team every night, and he is just growing in front of our eyes.

"I think there's still tremendous upside for Oliver. It's really his intellect, his puck-moving ability and his skating that stand out. He's a cornerstone on our blue line. We need to get another one or two like him back there and then we will be a team to be reckoned with."

Prospects on the rise: The Coyotes may have been thin up front last season, but they're loaded with young talent ready to make the jump to the NHL. Led by 2013 first-round pick Max Domi and 19-year old Anthony Duclair, Arizona should be faster and more skilled.

"Obviously Max Domi is ahead of the pack in regards to we know he's mature, we know he's got a strong body, he has a skill set that we lack," Maloney said. "Anthony Duclair came (to development camp), this was his first time to the Valley and first time on ice in a Coyotes uniform and he just wowed us with the skill and the speed and the execution just in his puck game. We haven't seen that pure speed and talent."

Maloney said forward Nick Merkley (the 30th pick in the 2015 NHL Draft) was one of the most impressive players at development camp in July, and Christian Dvorak (the 58th pick in 2014) was the most ready to compete for an NHL roster spot among the players who have junior eligibility remaining.

Mike Smith: Despite the goalie's struggles most of last season, Smith was not helped by his defense or his offense. The Coyotes allowed more than 33 shots per game and scored fewer than two regulation goals in 46 of his 62 appearances.

Smith

It's difficult to envision Smith having a similar season. In the previous two full seasons, Smith had 27 wins in 2013-14 and 38 wins in 2011-12.

"Mike Smith had a great finish to his year last year. He'll be better, I know he will," Maloney said. "And hopefully Lindback can come in and give us a really solid tandem there, so there's reasons for optimism and, yes, I think we are realistic about the challenges ahead here, so we'll have to play real solid defense and hopefully one or two of these young players will give us a pleasant surprise and some play-making ability and we'll move forward."

Staying in Glendale: The Coyotes will enter this season without having to worry about where they will play next season. The team and the City of Glendale reached a two-year agreement in July, so the players' focus can remain on the ice.

The Glendale City Council and the Coyotes are hoping to agree on a long-term deal to keep the team at Gila River Arena. But for now, it will be in Arizona at least through the 2016-17 season.

Follow David Satriano on Twitter: @davidsatriano

Author: David Satriano | NHL.com Staff Writer

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