Before Oliver Ekman-Larsson can even think about being the best defenseman in the NHL, he has to be the best defenseman in his own country. Heck, he’s not even the best defenseman in his own blueline pairing for Sweden. But Larsson is shooting for the title, both literally and figuratively.
When Sweden chooses its World Cup team, it will have some vexing decisions to make on its defense corps, but one of them will not be whether or not to include Ekman-Larsson. And there’s probably a good chance that whoever coaches the team will not duplicate the actions of Par Marts, who sat Ekman-Larsson out for the entire semifinal of the Olympics in Sochi and for the first two periods of the gold medal game. After starting the tournament as Erik Karlsson’s defense partner, Ekman-Larsson played fewer than 24 minutes total in Sweden’s final four games in Sochi. Ekman-Larsson started the tournament strongly with Karlsson, but was a fixture on the bench when Alexander Edler returned from his two-game suspension to start the tournament.
“That’s life,” Ekman-Larsson said of his Olympic experience. “I think I turned myself into a better player after that tournament. You can always learn from stuff like that. They didn’t say anything and I know that if I had been better they probably wouldn’t have benched me that easy. I wasn’t surprised.”
One thing Ekman-Larsson learned about himself was that he had to shoot the puck more. In the two seasons combined before last season, Ekman-Larsson had shot the puck a total of 301 times. Last season, he took 264 shots. Only one defenseman – you guessed it, Karlsson – took more shots than Ekman-Larsson did last season. So it should come as no surprise that Larsson broke the record for goals in the NHL by a Swedish-born defenseman with 23.
Until last season, Ekman-Larsson had been timid about using his shot from the point. He doesn’t possess a particularly booming shot from the point, but instead molds his game in the same way Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger did. Instead of blasting a shot into a sea of shin pads, Ekman-Larsson uses his hockey sense and precision to get the puck through to the net.
“I told myself before the year, ‘Every time I get to shoot the puck, I’m going to take it,’ ” Ekman-Larsson said. “You try to be a smart player. I know, for example, when I’m playing with Shane Doan and he’s standing in front of the net, I don’t have to wait because I know where his stick is going to be, it’s going to be wide and I’m going to shoot for that.”
With 43 points last season, Ekman-Larsson led all Arizona Coyotes in scoring, which said as much about the Coyotes inability to create offense as it did about Ekman-Larsson’s skill level. With the departure of Keith Yandle at the trade deadline, Ekman-Larsson is now the undisputed alpha dog on defense and one of the leaders on a team that will have a lot of youth and will almost certainly continue to struggle this season. Most are picking the Coyotes to battle(?) for last place overall and have the best odds of landing Arizona-born phenom Auston Matthews first overall in the draft.
“The good thing about having a year like last year is you know you don’t want to have it again,” Ekman-Larsson said. “That’s going to help our team this year. We’re going to have some young guys like Max Domi and Anthony Duclair who are really going to help us. You play in the NHL and you want to win every game. That’s the way it should be.”
As the Coyotes continue to grow, there’s a good chance Ekman-Larsson won’t see any real team success until the World Cup a year from now. With the likes of him and Karlsson, along with Niklas Kronwall, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, John Klingberg and Edler, the Swedish team will have some very serious talent on its defense corps. And when it comes to future Norris Trophies, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Karlsson, Hedman and Ekman-Larsson could all be in the conversation, perhaps all in the same year.
But none of those players had as many goals as Ekman-Larsson did last season. Nobody ever has from Sweden. And if Ekman-Larsson keeps his shoot-first attitude intact, there’s no reason to suggest he can’t continue to be the league’s top-scoring defenseman. But could he become just the ninth defenseman in NHL history to score 30?
“Maybe if they play me at forward,” Ekman-Larsson laughed. “I’d like to score at least 24 next year, that’s for sure.”