Oliver Ekman-Larsson Poised For Big Year
Another off-season is upon us, which means another summer of debating whether or not the Coyotes will still be in Phoenix next season. This time around things aren’t looking very optimistic in Glendale. The normally positive Bill Daly and Gary Bettman gave indications last week that the Coyotes stay in Phoenix could be coming to a close. Daly said it’s possible the team won’t play there for the 2013-14 season, and Bettman added that there were plenty of relocation markets who have expressed an interest in acquiring the team. Not a good sign coming from Bettman, a guy that almost always refuses to admit anything is wrong. It could be just pouring down rain and Bettman would still be trying to tell you he sees sunshine.
These distractions are nothing new for the Coyotes organization and their players. The squad has been living in a state of franchise limbo for years and have done an admirable job of continuing to perform at a high-level. Phoenix has cracked the post-season three out of the last four campaigns and even made the Conference Finals last year.
In the lockout shortened year of 2013, however, the Coyotes failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. Despite their recent struggles, Phoenix has one of the brightest young defenseman in the game today in Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The organization locked up the Swedish blue liner to a six-year deal worth $5.5M a season in March, ensuring he will be the future cornerstone of the team.
Ekman-Larsson was a victim of the lockout as it related to his numbers. He would have had a career year in just about every offensive category poolies are typically concerned with, if not for the shortened year. In 2013, Ekman-Larsson posted 24 points in just 48 games, while netting only 32 in a full 82 games in 2011-12. Not only that, but he recorded 101 shots and 26 PIM in 2013, compared to 147 and 32 respectively last year. In a full season Ekman-Larsson’s numbers would have been around 41 points, 172 shots, and 44 PIM.
In addition to an offensive upswing, Ekman-Larsson also changed has game drastically from a point’s perspective. In 2011-12 he scored 13 times and recorded 32 points, meaning his goals accounted for nearly 41% of his production. This year he only potted three goals which made up just 12% of his offense. He did have 21 assists though, which is two more than he had all of last year in 82 games.
If your league weighs goals and assists equally, this could be some good fortune for Ekman-Larsson owners. He led the team in assists and finished second on the squad in secondary helpers. There are obviously two assists available for every goal scored, so someone like Ekman-Larsson who all of a sudden seems to be a playmaker, has a greater chance of avoiding lengthy pointless droughts as a pure scorer would.
As good as Ekman-Larsson’s production was, he also did some things that show he is developing and adjusting quickly to the NHL game. He averaged less than a giveaway per contest in 2013 and was tied for 13th in the NHL when it came to drawn penalties. These stats may not do much for a poolie when it comes to statistical categories, but it does show Ekman-Larsson is making good decisions on the ice and maturing as a player. Positive strides in these areas build confidence and usually lead to getting more opportunities in crucial situations.
Ekman-Larsson’s improvement offensively may have also had something to do with the fact that he had a new defensive partner this season. Zbynek Michalek was by his side for most of this year as opposed to Adrian Aucoin in 2011-12. Aucoin is a solid veteran with a booming shot, but perhaps playing with Michalek, who is much more concerned with defensive play, allowed Ekman-Larsson to focus more on offense in 2013. Michalek had 87 blocks in just 34 games, and had he not missed 14 games with a broken foot, he probably would have been ranked in the top 10 in that category. An offensive defenseman typically does better when they are paired with a more defensive blue liner.
If Ekman-Larsson was altered offensively by a change in partner, a coaching switch could also have an impact. Dave Tippett’s contract expires on July 1st and it looks like he is waiting on an ownership decision before signing a new deal. Tippett is a tremendous defensive coach and if he sticks around, expect Ekman-Larsson’s plus/minus numbers to remain decent. However, if he decides to seek work elsewhere, Ekman-Larsson may see a drop in plus/minus, but more opportunities for offense. Tippett’s philosophy isn’t what you would call free-wheeling, so if a new bench boss comes in and opens things up it could lead to more points for Ekman-Larsson. Phoenix goaltenders may not like this approach, but Ekman-Larsson owners certainly will.
The growth of Ekman-Larsson has allowed the Coyotes to rely on him more and give him more responsibility. In 2013 he ranked 13th in the NHL in ice-time per game by averaging over 25 minutes per contest. His ice-time jumped by three minutes from 2011-12 to this year and that will make poolies very happy. Expect his minutes to be similar during the 2013-14 campaign.
As unsettling as the ownership situation is in Phoenix, at least the organization knows they have a defenseman locked up that should be the backbone of the squad for years to come. Finding someone that can skate, move the puck, and has the overall skill that Ekman-Larsson does, isn’t exactly an easy task. It’s nearly impossible to put together a winning team in the NHL without a top-tier defenseman. Ekman-Larsson may not be elite just yet, but he figures to get there soon, whether or not that’s in Phoenix remains to be seen.
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