OEL

 

Oliver Ekman-Larsson vs. Justin Faulk

 

Happy New Year everyone! Hopefully the NHL and NHLPA have resolved to get a deal done here in 2013. As for me, I’ve resolved to give you the cage matches you want to see each week, starting right now. This week’s Cage Match comes courtesy a request from the DobberHockey forum and it’s a matchup of two of the game’s most tantalizing young defensemen. It’s Justin Faulk vs. Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

 

On pedigree alone you’d have to side with Ekman-Larsson – he was the sixth overall selection in the 2009 draft class, while Faulk was the 37th pick in the 2010 draft class. But draft position hardly matters any more. These are established NHL calibre players who have both made great strides in their respective careers. So try to ignore the hype you’d heard before reading this article because this isn’t about hype. It’s about a rational discussion about two talented players who are primed to make the leap to stardom.

Let’s start with Ekman-Larsson who had something of a breakout season with the Phoenix Coyotes last year scoring 13 goals and 32 points. The goal total was good for fifth in the league among defensemen. What was shocking about that goal total was that only two of those goals were scored on the power play. In fact, Ekman-Larsson only scored eight total power play points last season, which is one area where Ekman-Larsson could really improve his production. What’s really exciting though is when you realize Ekman-Larsson was hardly receiving the most minutes he possibly could have.

Last season Ekman-Larsson skated a substantial 22:07 minutes per game for Phoenix but only 2:05 of those minutes were on the power play, and often times with the second unit. Simply put, he was being under-utilized based on his talents and production. Of course, that can happen on a team with an already established top defenseman like the Coyotes do with Keith Yandle but there would appear to be little reason to be concerned about Yandle remaining in Ekman-Larsson’s way.

First and foremost, when dealing with a player as talented as Ekman-Larsson a team will always find a way to get him opportunities. As the season went along the Coyotes kept giving Ekman-Larsson more ice time and more responsibility. At the beginning of the season Ekman-Larsson was skating just 18:50 per game with 1:31 on the power play. By the end of the season Ekman-Larsson was skating 24:37 per game with 2:41 on the power play. And that was nothing compared to how they leaned on him in the playoffs, which brings us to the next point: Ekman-Larsson surpassed Yandle during the playoffs.

Or at least he did in terms of ice time. Ekman-Larsson skated 25:47 per game with 3:29 on the power play during the playoffs. Yandle skated only 21:27 per game with 3:07 on the power play during the playoffs. That didn’t stop Yandle from outscoring Ekman-Larsson 9-4 during that playoff run but it was only 16 games so you could chalk that up to random chance. I wouldn’t call it random chance myself since a major proportion of the difference in ice time was that Ekman-Larsson was a fixture for the Coyotes on the penalty kill and Yandle wasn’t so the reality is that Yandle is still ahead of Ekman-Larsson in terms of offense but it’s also clear that that gap is closing, while the gap between the two in overall game most certainly favors Ekman-Larsson.

I don’t want to get into too much prognostication with regard to future moves made by the Coyotes (or any team for that matter) but it’s hard not to look at their current roster makeup and not see a dire need for them to acquire a forward or two. They did retain Shane Doan but they lost their most important playmaker, Ray Whitney. It’s also not hard to see how they could resolve that problem by simply trading a defenseman.

It would seem that the Coyotes have borrowed from the Nashville Predators model in recent years having established a system under a defensive-minded head coach and then making defense a priority in the draft. (They’ve also gained traction as a franchise by having an excellent goalie coach in Sean Burke, which also fits the Nashville model but isn’t at all important to this debate.) So now the Coyotes have an excellent group of defensemen at the pro level with plenty of great prospects ready to fill in the void internally.

On one hand, you might think that all that competition would be bad for Ekman-Larsson but again, he surpassed Yandle on the totem pole. Ekman-Larsson is the Coyotes’ franchise defenseman. He doesn’t need to worry about anyone in the system. All this internal competition doesn’t hurt Ekman-Larsson but it could make Yandle expendable. At the end of this season Ekman-Larsson becomes a restricted free agent and will be due for a raise. If the Coyotes decide that they can only afford so many big contracts on the blue line then maybe Yandle has to go. Or again, if they decide they need to bring in a forward or two then Yandle makes a very attractive piece.

Or they could keep both, which probably wouldn’t hurt Ekman-Larsson’s productivity anyhow. If you recall, Ekman-Larsson only scored four points during last year’s playoff run but all four of those points came on the power play, while paired with Yandle. For much of last season the Coyotes went with a four-forward power play quarterbacked by Ray Whitney but as the year went along the team started featuring more three-forward units with two defensemen (Yandle and Ekman-Larsson primarily) quarterbacking. As mentioned earlier, Whitney is gone now and while the team did bring in Steve Sullivan to satisfy their senior citizen requirement it remains to be seen if he can fill the void left by Whitney. In all likelihood that void gets filled by Ekman-Larsson being featured in more three-forward power play units. So one way or another Ekman-Larsson is going to find himself with more power play time in the future.

The question then becomes whether or not he can use it. His AHL production this season (seven goals and 21 points in 20 games) certainly indicates that there’s no limit to Ekman-Larsson’s scoring ability but you also need to have great circumstances to produce at the NHL level and Phoenix is far from an ideal circumstance. This is a team that tied for 23rd in total power play opportunities last season and was second worst overall in power play success. Overall they were just 18th in the league in team scoring. Now it is true that Yandle managed to score 59 points in one season playing for this middling offensive team but he also followed up that 59-point season by scoring just 43 last season so that just proves how difficult it is to project offense from defensemen.

All we know for certain is that Ekman-Larsson is a player of enormous talents – he has the skills, vision and intelligence to be an extremely productive player in the NHL – and that he now appears on the cusp of receiving the playing time necessary to maximize those skills and turn them into points. The biggest question with Ekman-Larsson was always whether or not his two-way game might prevent him from carving out the offensive role necessary to produce. That no longer appears to be a problem.

Faulk on the other hand has always been an offensive defenseman first. He’s a player I compared to Dan Boyle just two years ago. I think that projection is still bang on but we are trying to avoid hype so let’s talk about where Faulk stands now.

Faulk is coming off a successful rookie campaign where he scored eight goals and 22 points in 66 games for the Carolina Hurricanes, which is simply fantastic production for a teenaged defenseman. He may have been weak defensively but he offered the Hurricanes a spark from the blue line that they couldn’t get from anyone else.

So the Hurricanes kept feeding him minutes. On the year, Faulk averaged 22:51 minutes per game with 3:02 on the power play, both team highs. While it’s true that the Hurricanes were fairly depleted on defense last season (and as a whole their injury luck was pretty terrible) it’s still telling that Faulk established himself as a key player because that’s where he stands to be in the future. Most importantly, Faulk surpassed incumbent power play defenseman, Jamie McBain by the end of the season.

Of course, both Faulk and McBain are young and you can imagine there will be a battle in the coming years between the two for the coveted lone defenseman role on Carolina’s four-forward top power play unit but right now Faulk has the upper hand and it’s not difficult to see why. On the whole, Faulk’s offensive game is simply more dynamic. You could make the argument that Faulk doesn’t boast the hockey IQ that McBain does but Faulk is a better skater, has a bigger shot, and takes bigger chances offensively.

However, now that the Hurricanes have acquired more offensive talent with the likes of Alex Semin and Jordan Staal to go along with Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal there is certainly the possibility that a more patient and deferential approach is all the Hurricanes will require out of their top unit power play defenseman but that’s not a theory I’d give much credit to until I see it come to fruition. By all accounts Faulk has passed McBain so I’ve little concerns there.

I’m also not concerned about the presence of Joni Pitkanen even though he’s a proven producer. That’s because while he did miss a lot of time with injury last season, even upon his return he wasn’t taking minutes away from Faulk. Most important to note is the fact that the Hurricanes require a right-handed shooting defenseman to play the point on their top power play unit because everything runs through Skinner on the right half-wall. So really only McBain stands in Faulk’s way and that doesn’t appear to be too concerning a situation.

What I might be concerned about is the addition of Joe Corvo. While the first question it brings to mind is about the sanity of Hurricanes management, especially after having already had the Joe Corvo experience twice before, the second question is about whether or not he might offer a roadblock for Faulk. As bad as Corvo is defensively he is a pretty steady defenseman on the power play having registered 23 and 22 power play points in his last two full seasons with the Hurricanes respectively. So they know what they were getting and if they weren’t bringing Corvo in for his power play presence then I just don’t get it.

It’s sad that Faulk’s presence as top man in Carolina is so in question but he simply hasn’t earned enough good will after having only played one NHL season. Even his tremendous performance in the AHL this season (five goals and 20 points in 28 games) isn’t enough to have him locked into the top spot for Carolina. That’s because his complete game is still uneven. Faulk’s not terrible defensively but you also can’t call him good and as much as it was great that he was the leading minute-getter for Carolina last season that was also a “lost season.” They really had nothing to lose giving all those minutes to a rookie. The Hurricanes surely have much higher expectations going forward. If Faulk’s play remains uneven they may not have the luxury of feeding him so many minutes.

I’m still supremely confident about Faulk (especially in the long term) his short term value does take a hit because of this uncertainty. And it’s really a shame too because this Hurricanes team is loaded and ready to put up some big offensive numbers. I suspect we will see a sort of revolving door on the Hurricanes’ top power play unit with all of Faulk, McBain and Corvo seeing minutes. While Faulk is the best of the bunch he just doesn’t seem ready for the full time gig.

So I have to side with Ekman-Larsson in this battle. I think that long term you can’t miss on either of these guys, they are just that good but Ekman-Larsson is much farther along in his development and is thus in a better position to help you now so I’d favor him in a keeper league as well. It comes down to the corollary that if you have two young players with similar upside you should take the one who will produce more now. 


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