GLENDALE – The Coyotes didn’t play a game on Friday and some of the players didn’t even skate on the off day in Columbus. It was supposed to have been an uneventful day of rest for those on and around the team. Instead, it turned out to be an incredibly significant day for the franchise as talented young defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson agreed to sign a six-year contract to stay with the club that drafted him sixth overall in 2009.
“It feels great,” Ekman-Larsson told me and other reporters during a conference call about an hour after the deal was announced. “I'm really excited. It's a big day for me and my parents. I'm real excited to stay for six more years... I really like the team we have here in Phoenix.”
Photo by Getty Images.
Clearly, Ekman-Larsson is an up-and-coming star in the NHL. He already has played 157 games in the League and that doesn't include 16 playoff games in 2011-12. That’s pretty impressive considering he will not turn 22 years old until July.
Even more impressive: Ekman-Larsson is tied for sixth among NHL defensemen in points (17), and he leads the Coyotes in assists (14), ice time per game (25:07) and plus/minus rating at plus-8. Moreover, he’s one of only two NHL defensemen to score a shootout goal this season - Dan Boyle is other.
General Manager Don Maloney also spoke to reporters on a separate conference call on Friday and said he was thrilled Ekman-Larsson agreed to terms before becoming a restricted free agent after the season.
“For a young man he has a very mature outlook on his game and he’s very serious about growing into one of the best players in the game. So, we’re really pleased,” Maloney said. "... His play in the second half of (last) season and the playoffs made us realize that we had something special."
Ekman-Larsson told reporters that his primary focus is to keep working hard on his game and to improve each day.
"I think I can still improve and get better," he said. "I just have to work hard in practices and games. I think I can get better in every zone."
Maloney believes that work ethic should continue to serve the young Swede well.
"In Oliver’s case, I still believe there is a fair amount of physical maturing that is going to happen,” Maloney said. “He’s still a lean, young player and as he grows … I think his game can go to another level. That’s what we expect and that's why we were prepared to step up and sign him to such a lucrative contract.”
Near the end of Maloney’s conference call I asked him if he envisioned Ekman-Larsson becoming a team leader later in his career.
I found his response to be fascinating:
“You don't have to wear a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ to be a leader on the team,” Maloney said. “I believe he's a leader right now and his performance is leading our club.”
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