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Ekman-Larsson adapting to new normal with Coyotes

Defenseman adjusting to first-year coach's system, life without his mother

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- So much is different this season for Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson that it was bound to take him time to get used to his new normal.

Twelve games in, featuring mostly disappointment for the Coyotes, and Ekman-Larsson is working on figuring out how to thrive in the new up-tempo system installed by first-year Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet and how to live without his mother.

 

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"Perspective," Ekman-Larsson said.

Ekman-Larsson's mother, Annika, died in Tingsryd, Sweden, before the end of last season from cancer, a disease she had for 10 years.

Near the end, Ekman-Larsson soldiered on in Arizona, albeit with a worried, guilty mind and a heavy heart.

"I don't think I'm going to go through something like that ever again," Ekman-Larsson said. "It was just hard knowing what's going on back home and not being there for my family and for my mom. At the same time, she wanted me to be over here and to keep playing, so that's why I made the decision to stay over here."

Ekman-Larsson went to Sweden in early January, when the Coyotes had five days off.

"Basically, to say goodbye," he said.

The Coyotes granted him a leave of absence April 3 so he could go home and be with his family to mourn. He missed the last three games of the season.

"When I was at the rink, everything was fine and I didn't think about it as much, but once you got in the car, it impacts you," Ekman-Larsson said. "But I'm super proud of myself that I did that for her and my family. That's what she wanted and that's what I went with."

Ekman-Larsson said he's playing with a freer mind this season knowing that his mother isn't in pain anymore. It's part of the perspective he has gained.

"I still take hockey serious and I still want to be a good hockey player and I still want to win, but at the same time, you look at it in a different way," he said. "Life is short. You don't know how many more games I have in the League, how many more years, how many more chances I have to score a goal or win the Cup. You don't know, so you want to be your best every single day and just have fun. That's all you can do."

The Coyotes, who play at the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-A, FS-D, NHL.TV), are 1-10-1 after a 4-3 overtime win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday helped them avoid becoming the first NHL team to lose its first 12 games.

Ekman-Larsson is having a tough time adjusting to the way Tocchet wants him and the team to play. He has seven points (one goal, six assists) in 12 games.

"I've been playing the same system for seven years [under former coach Dave Tippett], so it takes time to get used to it," Ekman-Larsson said. "I've never played this kind of system before, but I'm feeling good about it. I like it."

Video: BOS@ARI: Ekman-Larsson rips home PPG to set record

Tocchet's system requires the Coyotes defensemen to skate more but get rid of the puck quicker. He wants the defensemen to get the puck and quickly look up the ice to find the forward breaking out of the zone, and then join the rush.

It's similar to how the Pittsburgh Penguins play, and that's not a coincidence considering Tocchet was an assistant under Penguins coach Mike Sullivan the past two seasons.

"It's less taking the puck back and waiting," Tocchet said. "I want to go the other way before the other team has their structure in place."

Tippett's system required the defensemen to back off more and, when they got the puck, to hold it longer to wait for a regroup before beginning a five-man breakout with the idea of creating speed that way. It was designed to be more conservative.

"For us D, it's a lot of skating forward this year," Ekman-Larsson said. "The past years, we have been skating backward and a lot. That took some time to get used to, but I like the way the system is going."

Tocchet said he sees the progress Ekman-Larsson is making, but he is urging him to watch video of Penguins defenseman Kris Letang because he thinks he can play a similar style in this system.

"Obviously, a player wants to have his own identity, but [Letang] is a guy that I would watch," Tocchet said. "Kris Letang can play 28 minutes. He's in fabulous shape. He's up the ice, but he also defends. When the pressure is on, he can make that right play at the right time. Yeah, he makes mistakes, but he's good at recovering from his mistakes. Those are attributes I think [Ekman-Larsson] can get better at."

Tocchet said it's time for that to happen.

"I need him to really be that leader back there," Tocchet said. "It's a 3-3 game, six minutes left, the other team wants to push, and he's got to be that rock that settles us down."

One thing Ekman-Larsson said he won't do is let frustration get the better of him. He has experienced a lot of losing in the desert, but he said he's fully invested in the Coyotes.

"It would feel like I'm throwing eight years away if I take the easy way out and say, 'Hey, I'm done, I'm not doing this anymore,'" Ekman-Larsson said. "No. I want to be the guy who turns this thing around. I want to be the difference-maker. That's why I'm still here. I really believe in this team and this organization that we could be good."

That would be a welcomed part of his new normal.

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