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Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes benefitting from addition of assistant Housley

'I'm super excited about having him here,' defenseman says about Hockey Hall of Famer

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Arizona Coyotes have a new mentor helping them become a team to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.

Phil Housley, the former coach of the Buffalo Sabres and the highest-scoring United States-born defenseman in NHL history, is in his first season as an assistant with Arizona and is working closely with the Coyotes defenseman. 

"I'm super excited about having him here, getting a chance to work with him," Ekman-Larsson said. "It's been different, but at the same time he wants us to get better and wants to teach you things. So, I like it. But at the same time, it's some stuff you're not used to doing out there on the ice, and sometimes that takes time to get used to."

Housley, fired by the Sabres on April 7 after going 58-84-22 in two seasons, said the Coyotes have been open to what he tells them. 

"They want to learn. They're very open to new ideas, which is great," Housley said. "For me, I want to see calmness, poise in the pressure situations. They did a terrific job last year making some noise and now there's a different expectation on this group and now they have to live up to it.

Video: OTT@ARI: Ekman-Larsson cleans up rebound in front

The changes brought in by Housley have been subtle, Ekman-Larsson said.

"Obviously, we have system that we tried to stick to, and then he came in and just tried to change some details," he said. "I think we can always improve in the D zone or if you're walking the line on the blue line shooting the puck or how you pass the puck." 

Housley was hired by the Coyotes on June 23 after his stint with the Sabres and four seasons as an assistant with the Nashville Predators, beginning in 2013. 

He impressed Rick Tocchet, who is in his second season as Coyotes coach after three seasons as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins, with his coaching and playing experience and out-of-the-box thinking, always bringing different ideas to the table.

"When I coached against him, I'm in Pittsburgh and when we knew we were going to play Nashville in the [2017 Stanley Cup] Final, I did a lot of research on the team," Tocchet said. "I just liked the way he developed their D. P.K. Subban had his best year. [Mattias] Ekholm and [Ryan] Ellis went to a different level. [Roman] Josi was always a star. I just liked the way their defense was playing, and from talking to certain people that knew them, they all said Phil was a big part of that."

Housley, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015, had 1,232 points (338 goals, 894 assists) in 1,495 regular-season games in the NHL. But his resume is only one of the reasons the Coyotes have so much respect for him.

"I mean, [he played] 1,500 games and [was] a really good player when he played," Ekman-Larsson said. "He's got things he can teach us, and you can tell he wants to help us so bad. It's a good thing when a coach cares that much. It's great to have him here."

Ekman-Larsson is in his 10th season with the Coyotes and second as captain. He has 343 points (118 goals, 225 assists) in 678 NHL games. He was the No. 6 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, and in his second season helped the Coyotes reach the 2012 Western Conference Final, losing in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.

Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes haven't been to the playoffs since. However, following a major step forward last season, the Coyotes are 12-7-2 and second in the Pacific Division. 

Video: ARI@NJD: Ekman-Larsson beats Blackwood to tie game

For Ekman-Larsson, the addition of Housley is about growth, both for himself and the Coyotes' group of defensemen. The early returns have been positive. 

"I played with some guys that had him in Nashville and some guys in Buffalo, so I only heard good things about him, and we're happy to have him and he's been good for our D corps," Ekman-Larsson said. "Overall, he's just really smart and good and kind of knows what his players want and need."

With Arizona, Housley said building relationships and communication have been his priority. From there, he said the focus of his input is more subtle and collaborative rather than trying to reorganize everything the Coyotes do.

"I'm not going to reinvent the wheel here," he said.

He understands that, in many ways, there's no need to.

Housley can see Ekman-Larsson is central to a group of defensemen that is gaining a reputation for stinginess on a team that is trending up. Arizona allowed 220 goals last season, tied for fifth-fewest in the NHL, and was the best defensive team not to qualify for the 2019 playoffs, finishing four points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card from the Western Conference.

The Coyotes are again showing their defensive proficiency this season, an approach that can establish them as contenders. With a group that includes smart veterans like Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski and Ekman-Larsson, and up-and-comer Jakob Chychrun, they have allowed 49 goals through 21 games, and their goals-against average of 2.33 per game is tied for best in the League with the New York Islanders.

Housley said he wants to learn what his players see and how that leads to the decisions they make. What things make them jump into the rush? When defending, what makes them choose to defend a certain opponent or area?

It's the thinking part of the game he loves to explore with players, as opposed to spending long sessions with technique or moving around the X's and O's.

As an elite player during his own career, Housley believes that's the more productive approach to coaching elite players. But he said there's no cookie-cutter approach, and his input with Ekman-Larsson is tailored to him.

"[Oliver] is a terrific person," Housley said. "There's a reason he's captain. He leads by example. He's an established guy. You can't try to input too many things. It's the little, subtle changes you may try to [introduce] him to.

"He skates well. He's got great mobility. He can escape forechecks. He's got a great range with his stick. He defends well. He does everything well. He can add to the rush. He plays in all situations. What things can I help him with? The subtle things."

Among them are things such as footwork, being square when defending a rush, and a few ideas about the power play.

"Puck movement on the power play, just trying to get his body more square to be able to disperse the puck both ways," Housley said. "Now that he's on the flank, he's got a tremendous shot and release. It's a weapon for him and we're just trying to work with him to find angles."

Housley said he's been careful not to overburden Ekman-Larsson or the other Coyotes defensemen with information. He wants to enhance, not clutter, their thinking and their game.

Goligoski, for instance, said he's already noticed some differences with Housley's approach, small adjustments that are paying off.

"Not to go too far into it, but we're holding onto pucks a little bit more as opposed to just throwing stuff out into the neutral zone and letting teams get back on the attack," Goligoski said. "If there's an opportunity to kind of hang onto it and keep the puck on our stick a little bit longer, that's something he's kind of been encouraging."

Housley's experience as a top-flight defenseman is what makes him so special, said Josi, Nashville's captain. 

"He was obviously an unbelievable player, and you could tell how much experience he has and how much he knows the game," Josi said. "He taught us a lot and helped us out every time he could, working on a lot of different things. It's pretty impressive. He's a Hall of Fame player. He's one of the best defensemen to ever play, so it's pretty cool as a young kid to have somebody like that coach you."

Subban, now with the New Jersey Devils, also enjoyed working with Housley in Nashville.

"He just knew when to say something," Subban said. "He knew when he didn't have to say anything. He knew when it was time for all the D corps to go to dinner together. He knew when it was time to pull me aside and keep it real with me and tell me I wasn't doing the right things. All in all, I feel like coaches today can't just be great hockey coaches, they have to be good people coaches as well."

Housley said he's already encouraged by what's happening in Arizona.

"These are veteran guys. We've been a little banged up here, so it's been tough. We haven't had our top four in the lineup for a while now," Housley said. "Hjalmarsson is out for quite a bit more time and the other guys are getting an opportunity and have done pretty well in that time. Jakob Chychrun has been really progressing well. Goligoski is a solid veteran. These guys are doing a terrific job." staff writers Tom Gulitti, Mike G. Morreale and independent correspondent Robby Stanley contributed to this report

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