The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are likely something that Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson looks back upon with mixed emotions. On paper, he excelled; he recorded three assists in six games for the Swedes in his best-on-best tournament debut and brought home a silver medal for his country as well. In reality, though, Ekman-Larsson’s tournament was derailed by Sweden’s head coach Pär Mårts, who benched his talented young defenseman for the vast majority of the Olympic Games in favor of players such as Alexander Edler, Jonathan Ericsson, and Henrik Tallinder.
Ekman-Larsson did not touch the ice in Sweden’s semi-final victory over Finland and was on the bench for the first two periods of the gold medal game against Canada as well. Ekman-Larsson also played just 7:06 against Latvia in the preliminary round and 9:09 against Slovenia in the quarterfinal, and averaged just 9:43 per game for the Olympics.
@NHLJensen Something had to have happened after game 2. No way Edler coming back is the only reason his minutes diminished like this!
— Chris Okrainetz (@chrisokrainetz) February 23, 2014
Ekman-Larsson wasn’t the only player who ended up in Mårts’ doghouse during the Olympics. The veteran coach also benched then-Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya for the third period of the gold-medal game and gave Detroit Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist less than seven minutes of ice time per game in the tournament. In addition, Tampa Bay Lighting defenseman Victor Hedman didn’t even make the roster.
A Change for the Better
However, things have changed in Sweden since the Sochi Olympics. Gone is Mårts; he’s been replaced as head coach by Rikard Grönborg, who was an assistant for Sweden in the Olympics and has years of coaching experience in North America as well. Many of Sweden’s players likely will be happy to have a new man behind the bench after Mårts’ erratic and highly questionable behavior in Sochi, but Ekman-Larsson might be the one who figures to benefit the most from Mårts’ departure; he’s had problems with the coach since his junior hockey days:
@NHLAdamK that’s great research
— 『 ary 』 (@carteciel) February 21, 2014
With a new coach in place for 2016, Ekman-Larsson figures to have a major role for Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto. Since his experiences in Sochi, the young Swede has lit up the NHL; he leads all defensemen in goals, game-winning goals, and power play goals over the past two seasons and is in the top-10 in points, shots on goal, shooting percentage, and power play points as well. He’s progressively improved every year since he was drafted sixth overall by the Coyotes in 2009, and, at just 25 years of age, will continue to get better.
It’s genuinely surprising that despite how good Oliver Ekman-Larsson is, he may still be underrated.
— Five For Howling (@Five4Howling) August 16, 2016
Ekman-Larsson also broke the NHL record for game-winning goals by a defenseman with eight last season and was named as one of Arizona’s alternate captains following the departure of fellow defenseman Keith Yandle at the trade deadline in 2015. He’s flown considerably under the national radar due to the fact that he plays in Arizona but quietly has developed into one of the best defensemen in the NHL.
In Toronto, Ekman-Larsson will fit in nicely on an extremely talented Swedish blue line; he’ll play alongside established NHLers such as Victor Hedman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Mattias Ekholm, and two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and will play in front of 2012 Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist. He’ll also see some power play time alongside skilled forwards such as Filip Forsberg, Daniel Sedin, and Henrik Sedin, among others, and will have the chance to make a name for himself on Canada’s biggest stage while playing in the biggest international hockey event of the year.
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