Calgary’s decision to sign Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet earlier this season didn’t produce the results that the Flames had hoped for. But it created a ripple effect around the National Hockey League — one that was felt in Phoenix.
With budding star Oliver Ekman-Larsson entering the final season (a shortened one, no less) of his contract, Coyotes general manager Don Maloney and assistant GM Brad Treliving adopted a sense of urgency.
“I’ve never been a fan of long-term contracts for young players who are still improving. I’d rather not pay for potential,” Maloney said. “But when the offer sheet came out on O’Reilly, it really put us into overdrive because we thought we were potentially vulnerable to an offer sheet in the offseason.”
Maloney calmed the fears of Coyotes fans on Friday when the team announced a six-year, $33 million extension for the Swedish defenseman that will keep Ekman-Larsson in a Coyotes sweater until 2019. The deal is backloaded to give the Coyotes more cap flexibility in the early years.
“It feels great and I’m really excited,” Ekman-Larsson said. “It’s a big day for me and my parents.”
It’s also a big day for the Coyotes, who drafted OEL with the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft. Only 21 years old, he has already played in 157 NHL games while displaying the strong skating and puck-moving skills that enticed the Coyotes when they scouted him in Sweden before the draft.
Following his first full NHL season in 2011-12, Ekman-Larsson faced increased expectations this year, and he has largely met them. He is sixth among NHL defensemen in points (17), leads the Coyotes in ice time per game (25:07) and shifts per game (29.3) and is 13th overall in the NHL in ice time.
“I just try to play my game and don’t try to listen to everybody else,” he said of the expectations entering this season. “I am focused on what I have to do out on the ice to win. I’m not going to change anything.”
Maloney said the Coyotes used the contracts of players such as Buffalo’s Tyler Myers, Tampa Bay’s Matt Carle and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson as guidelines for this deal. But there was a certain amount of common sense that drove them as well.
“Obviously, for anyone following us, you understand the value we place in Oliver,” Maloney said. “When a 21-year-old is (one of your) top scorer(s), your best plus-minus guy (plus-8) and one of the top ice-time guys in league — and being mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate — we felt the sooner we get him signed to a long-term contract, the better.
“We felt a future contract would be more, not less.”
With OEL locked up, the Coyotes have two key pieces of their blue line signed for the long term. Keith Yandle’s deal runs through 2015-16 at an average yield of $5.25 million. Zbynek Michalek is signed through 2014-15 at an average rate of $4 million per season.
The question on many minds Friday was this: If the Coyotes can lock up OEL long term, what’s keeping them from signing goalie Mike Smith to a long-term deal?
Maloney told FOX Sports Arizona earlier this season that contract talks with Smith were on hold until the end of the season. He said Friday that it was a mutual decision, although he did express a willingness to negotiate with Smith, calling him an “important” part of the team.
Given Smith’s drop in numbers this season — his 2.92 goals-against average ranks 36th in the league and his .899 save percentage ranks 34th — Maloney is sitting in a position of strength and can afford to wait. Smith has only one standout NHL season on his resume, so his bargaining power with the club this offseason may not be very strong. There is also the possibility that if Smith does not rebound over the final 21 games of the season and the playoffs, the Coyotes could move in another direction.
Minor league goalie Mark Visentin, the Coyotes’ first-round pick in 2010, isn’t quite ready for the NHL, but the team might be able to find a short-term solution on the market until he is.
In Ekman-Larsson’s case, the Coyotes are convinced that there is nothing but upside to his game. And his decision to play in Portland, rather than Sweden, during the lockout also convinced them of his maturity and commitment to the organization.
“We still believe there is a fair amount of physical maturing that’s going to happen,” Maloney said of the 6-foot-2, 190-pound defenseman. “Once he physically gets that man strength that we’re all looking for, his game can go to another level.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter