Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson celebrated his 22nd birthday three months ago. Watching him on the ice, you would think he's 32.
One of the brightest young stars in the sport, the Swedish defenseman is in his fourth season in North America. Much like countrymen around his age, Ekman-Larsson tries to emulate the game of former Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
Lidstrom, who retired after the 2011-12 season, played 1,564 games and won the Stanley Cup four times with the Red Wings. He became the first European captain to hoist Lord Stanley in 2008.
Phoenix visits Detroit on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, FS-A, FS-D) at Joe Louis Arena.
"I think everybody who plays the game in Sweden watched him a lot," Ekman-Larsson told NHL.com of Lidstrom. "He was a great player and a good leader too. I watched him a lot when I was younger. He was one of the best players in the world."
Ekman-Larsson has work to do before he can be mentioned with the likes of Lidstrom, but he's already in the same breath with the best defensemen in the NHL. Phoenix's first-round pick (No. 6) at the 2009 NHL Draft, Ekman-Larsson led the Coyotes last season with 25:05 of ice time per game. In 48 games, he had three goals, 21 assists and a plus-5 rating.
"You want to play a lot," Ekman-Larsson said. "You want to be out on the ice for every situation like PK, power play, 5-on-5. I really like to play a lot. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing and try to improve and take my game to the next level.
"I try to get better at everything. I try to get better at every practice and every game. I just have to keep working hard and just try to be a better player."
That attitude separates Ekman-Larsson from most defensemen around his age. For Dave Tippett, it's one many reasons Ekman-Larsson is a delight to coach.
"He's a real student of the game," Tippett told NHL.com. "He understands the game very well. He wants to be in all situations and wants to get better. I think the outside will recognize he's a very good player, but inside he's still striving to get better. He wants to be a top player in the NHL. He works at that every day. He thinks the game well, plays all situations … he's just going to be real top player for a long time."
Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris remembers the first time he practiced with Ekman-Larsson when the team opened training camp in the fall of 2011. It didn't take very long to realize Ekman-Larsson's skill set.
"The first thing I noticed was he grabbed one puck that I think was rimmed around the boards and he took two strides and it was already at the middle of the ice," Morris told NHL.com. "That's the hardest thing I think for a D-man, is to pull laterally across the blue line smoothly, and he does it as good as anybody."
It's not just an offensive game Ekman-Larsson brings to the rink. Since entering the NHL three years ago, he's worked tirelessly at becoming a top defensive defenseman.
"Being an offensive defenseman, I think when he played over in Sweden, I think he's done a real good job of learning how to play both ends," Morris said. "He's got a phenomenal stick in his own zone. He skates better than probably anybody in the League. He moves laterally, closes holes real quick, and makes real smart decisions. He plays a real simple game, but a very effective one."
Size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) and skill are obviously two terrific qualities. The Coyotes are also thrilled with Ekman-Larsson's maturity, which they believe is far beyond his years.
"Oliver, not only is he a great player, but he's one of the best guys too," Phoenix captain Shane Doan told NHL.com. "He's a great kid. He's exactly what you want young kids to be like. He's so talented. We literally will stop and watch him practice sometimes. The stuff he does … he's pretty special.
"It's hard to deal with everything that comes along once you start having success to realize how hard it is to achieve it and kind of maintain it. Oliver has exceeded everyone's expectations, and he continues to all the time."
The Coyotes missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, finishing four points out of the final spot in the Western Conference. Helping Phoenix get back to the postseason is important for Ekman-Larsson, but the polished defenseman also has a chance to represent Sweden at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He was one of 35 players to attend orientation camp in August and has to be considered a favorite to be on Sweden's blue line when the tournament begins in February.
"That's one of the goals for this season," Ekman-Larsson said. "I'm not there yet, so if I'm playing good here, I'll have a bigger chance to make it."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
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