It’s not official yet, and it won’t be until July 1 at the earliest, but it appears you can go ahead and remove Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson from the off-season trade board.
Though league rules will prevent Ekman-Larsson from putting pen to paper on a new pact before free agency officially opens and the final season of his six-year, $33-million contract kicks in, ArizonaSports.com's Craig Morgan reported Monday evening that the Coyotes and Ekman-Larsson, who have long been engaged in contract discussions, have come to a “verbal agreement” regarding an extension. According to Morgan, the new deal will carry an $8.25-million cap hit, which would see the 26-year-old rearguard paid $66 million over the lifetime of the contract. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported early Tuesday that the extension is believed to be worth $8-plus million per season.
Financially, the move is significant for the Coyotes in that an organization that has traditionally not been a big spender has ponied up top dollar to keep its most notable soon-to-be free agent. If the annual value of the deal is the reported $8.25-million figure, Ekman-Larsson’s pact would carry a cap hit nearly $3 million larger than his current contract and make the Swedish defenseman the highest-paid Coyote by nearly $2 million. The next-highest paid player is Derek Stepan, who is set to earn $6.5 million per season for three more campaigns.
But more than just finally flexing some financial muscle, locking Ekman-Larsson up to an eight-year extension would be a massive early off-season victory for the Coyotes, who were facing the prospect of losing their top defenseman if a deal couldn’t be reached this summer. Rumblings had surfaced throughout the season that Arizona may be willing to move the defenseman, who has played all of his 576 career NHL games with the Coyotes, and that was believed to be especially true if contract talks hit an impasse. However, Arizona GM John Chayka said early in the campaign, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t interested in moving Ekman-Larsson. “I’ve been on the record numerous times about the subject and have been very clear,” Chayka told Morgan in November. “I haven’t had a single conversation about Oliver that has lasted more than five seconds.”
And with good reason, it appears. Ekman-Larsson has been clear about his desire to remain in Arizona, and while testing the market and eventually moving Ekman-Larsson would have surely netted the Coyotes a healthy return, there’s much more to be gained with the all-star caliber blueliner in the lineup. Even if Arizona would have pulled down a high pick, a blue-chip prospect and roster player in a move for Ekman-Larsson, it would have set the defense back and there’s a real likelihood that no pick or prospect would have been able to produce at the defenseman’s level.
While the 2017-18 season was admittedly a tough one for Ekman-Larsson, particularly in the early going when he was struggling to find the scoresheet to the tune of six goals and 19 points through the first 44 games, the Coyotes star defender turned a corner heading into and coming out of the all-star break. Across the final 38 games, Ekman-Larsson scored eight goals and 23 points and averaged upwards of 22 minutes per night. And that’s much more akin to what the Coyotes are used to out of Ekman-Larsson, who has grown into one of the top producing rearguards in the game.
Since his first full slate in the NHL during the 2011-12 campaign, Ekman-Larsson has fired home 101 goals and 279 points in 528 games, and that puts him among the class of the league in terms of blueline production. Only 13 defensemen have scored more points over that same span, only 16 have a higher points-per-game rate and only Erik Karlsson, Shea Weber and Brent Burns have more goals. Ekman-Larsson also ranks second in power-play goals, ninth in power-play points and has more game-winning goals than any other blueliner in the NHL over that span. That’s not to mention Ekman-Larsson has two top-10 Norris Trophy finishes on his resume.
In locking up Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes get more than just the certainty of having their star under wraps for the foreseeable future, though. Rather, the signing solidifies the Arizona defense corps for seasons to come. If Ekman-Larsson is under wraps for eight seasons, he will join Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers as blueliners inked through the 2020-21 campaign. Add to it reported contract talks with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jakob Chychrun’s restricted free agent status entering next seasons and chances are the Coyotes have the top four or five spots on the back end locked in for at least three years.
Despite what some may think, too, it’s a group worth keeping together. While Coyotes netminder Antti Raanta admittedly played a large part in Arizona’s strong defense down the stretch, coach Rick Tocchet’s group tied for the fourth-fewest goals against from February through to the end of the campaign and while they surrendered the 11th-most shots against per 60 minutes over that span, they bested three post-season teams in that category, including the Eastern Conference finalist Tampa Bay Lightning. And while the argument can be made that the pressure was off and the post-season was already well out of reach by November, after starting the season with a dreadful 11-game losing streak, Arizona went 29-31-11 and the Coyotes accumulated 37 points from February onward. In fact, Arizona’s 17-12-3 record was the 17th-best in the NHL over the final two-and-a-half months of the campaign.
The late-season improvement is one sign of hope for the Coyotes moving forward. And that Ekman-Larsson saw that, lived it and feels as though there’s a brighter future for him in Arizona is another reason for long-suffering Coyotes fans to feel as though this thing can finally get turned around for good.
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