Buried in the southwest United States among coyotes, cactus, tumbleweed and dust storms, the Arizona Coyotes are as far removed from the hockey galaxy as one can imagine.
A quick look at the press box at the Gila River Arena during a Coyotes game reveals a row of empty seats which would be highly prized at the Bell Centre, Air Canada Centre, Madison Square, or the Wells Fargo Center in Philly. The media is absent in droves as are the casual sports fan, but one constant remains.
Here, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is achieving well below the radar screen, and his accomplishments are going largely unnoticed. An All-Star this past January in Columbus and clearly a rising personality within the NHL, Ekman-Larsson’s skills, his vision of the rink and enduring relationships inside the Coyotes locker room are beginning to be noticed.
Modest, humble and unassuming, the 23-year-old native of Kariskrona, Sweden would rather talk about helping his team win than adding his name to the record books.
among the NHL best
The later is a given, and because with two goals last Saturday at home against San Jose, Ekman-Larsson tied the Winnipeg-Arizona franchise record for most goals in a season by a defenseman. With three games left, beginning Tuesday night in Calgary, the record is expected to broken, but Ekman-Larsson would rather divert attention.
“I just want to stay focused on what we do as a team,” he said. “Getting wins, that’s all I care about.”
With his talent level rising and production increasing, Ekman-Larsson is becoming an attractive personality within the NHL landscape. Through he signed a six-year deal two years ago, there is little to doubt he would welcome attention to any team.
Yet, Ekman-Larsson seems perfectly content in Sedona red.
“Guys like (Ekman-Larsson) are hard to find,” said Arizona coach Dave Tippett. “He’ll continue to get better and, what’s really appealing, he is committed to this franchise.”
A quick response to his work around the Coyotes locker room reveals a sense of awe and wonder.
“Mild-boggling,” goalie Mike Smith said of Ekman-Larsson play-making ability and skill level. “It’s really scary how good he will become. If you take him out of our line-up, that’s 23 goals less than we would have, and we have trouble scoring anyway.”
Playing in the Phoenix market is not the equivalent of skating on Broadway or lifting the Stanley Cup on Venice Beach. Hidden behind Camelback mountain and on the edge of the Colorado River basin, this is a vacation destination, but snow birds tend to make up a strong segment of a hockey crowd. When Detroit or the Blackhawks are in town, the Coyotes get a strong sense they’re playing on the road, and a slight semblance of a hockey atmosphere rises within the desert.
That would enable Detroit or Chicago media members an important chance to see Ekman-Larsson, but they do not necessarily report on his exploits.
(Ekman-Larsson) is such a special player, and it seems only we know about it,” said captain Shane Doan. “There’s little national media which picks up on him, but he is a truly great talent.”
With two goals against the Sharks last Saturday night, EkmanLarsson propelled his total to 23 on the season, and that tied Phil Housley for the franchise record. At the same time, Ekman-Larsson became the first defenseman since the franchise moved to Arizona to score at least 20 goals in a season.
As another principal achievement, his 23 goals is tops for defensemen, this season, in the NHL.
At this point in a relatively young career, Ekman-Larsson’s achievements and contributions are strong, and will continue to impress.
“He’s an impact player,” Tippett added. “His goal total is a great accomplishment, and but his leadership is also profound. There’s no question is he is an elite player in this league.”
Follow Mark Brown on twitter, @journalist193
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.