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Ekman-Larsson is Coyotes' foundation moving ahead

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

It's not totally out of the realm of possibility, because nothing is when it comes to trades at this time of the season, but the Arizona Coyotes might have a better chance of storming back into the Stanley Cup Playoff race in the Western Conference than there is of general manager Don Maloney trading all-star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

The Coyotes are 24 points out of a playoff spot and in seller's mode heading into the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2 at 3 p.m. ET. Their hope is to secure some assets and get a good position for the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery in order to enhance their rebuild.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Defense - ARI
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 31
SOG: 203 | +/-: -19
Ekman-Larsson, 23, is the foundation of Arizona's rebuild.

"If he was on any other team in the entire NHL everyone would be talking about how he is not just top-five [among defensemen in the NHL], he'd be talked about as the best," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "He's unbelievable."

That said, almost one month ago Arizona general manager Don Maloney surprisingly mentioned Ekman-Larsson's name in a conversation about trades on TSN 1200 Radio in Ottawa.

"Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a player that we would certainly be very, very reluctant to part with," Maloney said Jan. 30. "But as far as I'm concerned when you're sitting with our record, and we're [one of the] three or four worst records in the League, then everybody is up for grabs."

Maloney's comment went viral through the hockey community, but it was taken out of context. All he meant from Arizona's perspective was if, for example, the Pittsburgh Penguins offered Sidney Crosby in a trade for Ekman-Larsson, then yes, the defenseman would be up for grabs.

Maloney is refraining from commenting publicly until after the trade deadline, but a Coyotes spokesperson said the GM has no intention of trading Ekman-Larsson.

"I'm really happy in Arizona and I'm happy about playing a lot," Ekman-Larsson said. "I just love being in Arizona."

The Coyotes love having him. Why wouldn't they?

Ekman-Larsson is their best player. He leads NHL defensemen with 17 goals and is second behind Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson with 203 shots on goal. Ekman-Larsson is third on Arizona with 31 points.

"He's a combination of a dynamic player and the most sensible, reasonable, thoughtful player you can have," coach Dave Tippett said. "He has a dynamic shot but he plays hard minutes, plays against other teams' top players, and he makes hard plays look easy. He's just an all-around good player but he has a dynamic element to his game also. I think he's one of the top defensemen in the League. Obviously this year with our team it's not going the way anybody would like, and Oliver would certainly like to be better, but if he was a lot of other places there would be a lot more fanfare, that's for sure."

Location might be the biggest knock on Ekman-Larsson.

"If he was in the East you'd hear more about him with prime-time TV," Yandle said. "But we're happy we have him."

Like everyone with the Coyotes, Ekman-Larsson hates all the losing they have done this season and is struggling to come to grips with the idea that Arizona is heading into rebuilding mode. This is the first time since he arrived in Arizona in 2010 that the Coyotes have been in this position.

"It's hard," Ekman-Larsson said. "Obviously when you don't have the success you're looking for change is going to happen. That's where we're at now. It's hard to say what happened."

What happened doesn't matter anymore. For the Coyotes, it's what they're going to do about it. Trading assets, veteran players with expiring contracts, is the obvious solution. So is building around Ekman-Larsson, who loves that idea.

"That's what I want," he said. "I want them to build a team around me, an organization around me. Look at Shane Doan; they have been building around him for 20 years now. I want to be that guy who everybody likes and that they want to build around."

Doan, 38, isn't ready to cede the captaincy yet, but depending on what happens with Yandle, Ekman-Larsson could be the next captain in Arizona. Yandle is signed through next season but he might be traded either before the deadline or in the offseason.

"I wouldn't say no to that," Ekman-Larsson said of being captain one day. "It's up to the coaches and the staff so I don't focus on that. But I would love to wear a letter."

"I think he has all the potential to be and he has the personality to be," Doan said. "I think having Keith Yandle around is huge for him because [Yandle] is a natural leader and Oliver sees the way he is with everybody and that gives him so much more comfort."

Having Ekman-Larsson around gives the Coyotes comfort as they head into their rebuild. He's the cornerstone defenseman, their gem. He's not leaving the desert.

"Oliver is special," Doan said. "The way he sees the game is incredible. He is unbelievable defensively. He plays physical. He does everything that you want him to do. He's just an unbelievable teammate too. He's exactly what you want in a player."

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