Coyotes’ Ekman-Larsson is chasing Lidstrom’s All-Star example

Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will make his first NHL All-Star Game appearance on Sunday in Columbus.

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Oliver Ekman-Larsson idolized Detroit Red Wings defenseman and fellow countryman Nicklas Lidstrom from the time he was 5 years old.

"I had posters and hockey cards," Ekman-Larsson said sheepishly. "We didn’t get a lot of the NHL games on TV, but I read about him all the time in the newspapers and obviously, everybody knew who he was in Sweden."

As Ekman-Larsson gets set to play in his first NHL All-Star Game on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, it has been suggested that he is following in the footsteps of the four-time Stanley Cup winner, seven-time Norris Trophy winner and 12-time NHL All-Star. Just don’t suggest that to Ekman-Larsson.

"I don’t know about that. I don’t really even have an answer for that," he said. "I watched him a lot and I try to do things he did, but he made such good plays with the puck, and he made it look so easy.

"He didn’t do anything fancy. He just tried to keep it simple, and that’s the hardest thing to do in this league."

The first quarter of the season was a struggle in that department for Ekman-Larsson. He was a minus-15 through the first two months, and it was eating at him.

"Early on, he was like a lot of the rest of our team. Things weren’t going our way," coach Dave Tippett said. "The last month or so he’s been really good, not just in the league plus-minus but in our chances plus-minus. His game has come back to where it was last year, being a good offensive player along with being a good defender."

Since Dec. 1, Ekman-Larsson is even in plus-minus on a team that has a goal differential of minus-35 over that span. He is tied for first among NHL defenseman with 12 goals (21 points) with San Jose’s Brent Burns, Colorado’s Erik Johnson and Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien. He leads the NHL in game-winning goals with six and leads all defensemen with eight power-play goals. 

Ekman-Larsson has tried to model his game after Nicklas Lidstrom, who he idolized while growing up in Sweden.

"I had a couple games there early where I threw (the puck) right up the middle and the other team intercepted it and scored on it," he said. "It takes your confidence out of the game when you make bad mistakes like that, so I’ve just tried to make sure I made an easy first pass — keep it simple to get my confidence going." 

Coyotes associate coach Jim Playfair, who works with the defenseman, said Ekman-Larsson has shed some of the approximately 10 pounds he gained in the offseason, and that has aided his turnaround. The initial idea behind the weight gain was that he needed to get stronger to battle in the corners and log more ice time, but Ekman-Larsson found he was slower on pivots and getting to pucks.

"You watch him now and he’s playing a quicker game and making quicker decisions," Playfair said. 

Playfair also sees a simpler approach.

"That’s been a focus and the next part of the equation is to become a better defender — not attack the rush and jumping up to create offense, but defending the rush without the puck and then making simple, first outlet passes," Playfair said. "He’s letting the game come to him now."

Ekman-Larsson participated in the 2011 Young Stars Game in Carolina. That’s where he got his first real chance to talk to Lidstrom, even if it was a short conversation.

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"I’m just a little bit nervous and shy around the top players. It’s just the way I am, and I’ve always been like that," he said. "It’s still fun to be around them, but I don’t talk a lot."

If his career keeps moving in this direction, Ekman-Larsson will get a lot more comfortable hanging out with the NHL’s greatest stars. Maybe he’ll even warrant those Lidstrom comparisons.

"Both players can play the game at a high level and remain calm," Playfair said. "That’s where EL is learning to model his game after Lidstrom — and it’s a graceful way to play the game.

"Lidstrom always knew where to be on the ice to put the percentages in his favor. EL has an ingrained ability to do that, but he’s learning how to do it on a more consistent basis on a higher level in the NHL."

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