Ekman-Larsson blazing trail to stardom

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Three summers ago, Oliver Ekman-Larsson received a check in the mail for about $200,000. He wasn’t expecting it because he didn’t know there was a bonus in his contract for reaching a certain number of blocked shots.

"That just kind of shows where EL’s focus is," said Coyotes assistant coach Jim Playfair, who coaches the defense. "He doesn’t focus on the rewards. He focuses on the process. He wants to be a 200-foot player and an every-situation player. He knows the rewards will come from that."

Rewards are difficult to find right now, in what is shaping up to be the worst season since the franchise relocated to Arizona in 1996. But Ekman-Larsson provides nightly reminders that the Coyotes have a critical and proven piece of the future already blossoming into a superstar.

Ekman-Larsson’s end-to-end goal on Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks rolled all of his abilities into one, brilliant, 11-second clip: fluid skating; incredible, up-ice vision; shiftiness to allude what turned out to be four defenders; and hand-eye coordination to finally bury his third shot attempt from a difficult angle.

"That one will make a lot of highlight reels," coach Dave Tippett said. "He’s a special player."

The goal gave Ekman-Larsson 20 this season. That leads the team, leads all NHL defenseman and is just three shy of tying Phil Housley’s franchise record of 23, which Housley reached in successive seasons (1990-91, 1991-92). 

"Too bad it’s not my contract year," Ekman-Larsson quipped with a grin.

The Coyotes locked up Ekman-Larsson two years ago with a six-year, back-loaded extension for $33 million that will keep him under contract through the 2018-19 season. That deal is going to look smarter and smarter as Ekman-Larsson, 23, matures into a star.

Ekman-Larsson isn’t receiving much attention for postseason awards because he doesn’t have the assists (16) to go along with his goals on a team without a lot of scorers. But as the Coyotes’ increasing pool of prospects makes its way to the NHL, those opportunities could materialize.

COYOTES at RED WINGS

When: 4:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Season series: Detroit leads 1-0
Injuries: Arizona — RW Mikkel Boedker (splenectomy) and C Martin Hanzal (back surgery) are out for the season. Detroit — C Pavel Datsyuk (lower body) has missed the last three games and is unlikely to play against Arizona. F Johan Franzen (upper body) is on injured reserve. G Jonas Gustavsson (concussion) is out indefinitely.
Quick facts: Detroit has lost six of its past nine games, but managed an overtime win over St. Louis on Sunday when Justin Abdelkader scored while apparently playing with a broken stick. … The Red Wings still have a comfortable five-point lead over Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division. … Jimmy Howard will start in goal against the Coyotes.

"Twenty goals for a defenseman, that speaks volumes," said Canucks forward and former OEL teammate Radim Vrbata after Sunday’s game. "I can see him winning a Norris Trophy very soon. He’s as good as he is now and he’s only going to get better."

Ekman-Larsson has always cited fellow Swede Nicklas Lidstrom as his inspiration and role model. It is with happy coincidence then that he is heating up (three goals in his last three games) as the Coyotes head to Detroit for a game against Lidstrom’s former team, the Red Wings.

Just as telling, however, is Ekman-Larsson’s increased shouldering of a leadership role now that Keith Yandle is in New York and there are a lot of fresh faces surrounding him.

"I don’t feel that young any more," he said. "I want to help the younger guys and want to be a leader on and off the ice. (Shane) Doaner and the older guys took care of me when I moved over here and I want to be taking care of the younger guys.

"Obviously, Yandle took a lot of space in the locker room. Someone has to step up now when he’s not there."

Once the Coyotes trade-deadline purge was complete, two alternate captains were gone. Tippett chose to bestow one of those As on Ekman-Larsson.

"He’s a franchise player for us," Tippett said at the time. "Right now, he’s a guy that can be a stabilizer in that room for us."

Ekman-Larsson is not sure he will ever be a rah-rah type leader but he doesn’t think that is necessary.

"You can be a leader in different ways," he said. "Look at Doaner. He’s a good leader on and off the ice. He doesn’t say that much in the locker room but when he has to he speaks up."

Besides, Ekman-Larsson isn’t the flashy type when it comes to off-ice activities. He may have his own underwear line, but he said last week with a sheepish grin that there will no more modeling sessions in his briefs. And as for that $200,000 check he received three summers ago, he did go out and buy a Lamborghini, but it wasn’t for him, it was for his dad.

"It’s his dream car," Ekman-Larsson said. "He’s always been there for me. I figured I owed him that much." 

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