Source: Wikipedia Commons
Very few people are familiar with the Phoenix Coyotes. Even fewer could pick Oliver Ekman-Larsson out of a lineup. There are numerous reasons for this unfortunate scenario, and with the season he just had that should change quickly.
The Phoenix Coyotes are an unremarkable team. They win by playing a conservative game, soaking up loser points, and praying. This is a close approximation of the narrative used to explain the unlikely success of the 2012 version of the Coyotes. Under each narrative there is some shred of truth. The Coyotes were 19th in the regular season in Fenwick Close. They had three players reach the 20 goal plateau of which the youngest was 30 year old Radim Vrbata. They have leaned heavily on a goalie the goaltending desperate Tampa Bay Lightning cast aside, and somehow he rewarded them with a .930 save percentage.
The aforementioned realities of the Coyotes 2012 season give the national media few easily accessible hot button discussion points throughout the course of the season unless the franchise is in trouble or someone gets a massive suspension. Combine that with the Coyotes home address being in the desert of Arizona (which might as well be the desert of Iraq considering how little coverage they receive), and it becomes very easy to write the Coyotes off completely.
These factors have culminated to overshadow the impressive second season by one of the NHL’s top young defensemen. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a really good two way defenseman playing for a team that emphasizes sound transitional play. After a solid rookie season Ekman-Larsson shined in 2012 with added responsibility and more minutes.
The most obvious evidence of Ekman-Larsson’s rise are his offensive counting stats In 82 games Ekman-Larsson scored 13 goals and added 19 assists in 82 games. He was 40th among NHL defensemen in Points/60, and tied with Yandle for 3rd in Goals/60. He was an excellent offensive defenseman in the regular season, and should be going forward even if his shooting percentage falls from the 8.8 he shot this past year. Defensemen will generally shoot around five percent given that they’re usually shooting from further out than forwards so his 8.8 rate isn’t alarmingly high.
Hockey-reference allows us to put his offensive contributions in context fairly easily with their Player Season Finder. Since the first puck was dropped in an NHL rink only 33 defensemen 20 or younger have scored 13+ goals. Phil Housely, Scott Stevens, Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, and Larry Murphy all did it twice. Paul Coffey, Brian Leetch, Dion Phaneuf, Glen Wesley, Denis Potvin, Drew Doughty, Craig Hartsburg, and Erik Karlsson also accomplished the feat. Since the lockout only Doughty, Karlsson, Phaneuf, and Ekman-Larsson have been able to pull it off.
What makes Ekman-Larsson’s season so special is that he was able to produce positive results without playing defensively sheltered minutes like so many young defenseman. To add a little context notice the table below which compares the recent Doughty and Karlsson seasons to Ekman-Larsson’s 2012.
|Player||TOI/G||Corsi QoC||Pts/60||Corsi Rel||OZ%|
All three played big minutes. All three played against above average competition with Karlsson receiving the easiest matchups of the three. All three had similar production at even strength. The biggest statistical difference between the three is that Ekman-Larsson was trusted with a higher percentage of defensive zone draws than the other two.
Ekman-Larsson’s defensive prowess shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He’s an intelligent player that can skate and cover a large amount of ground with his wide wingspan. This is a clear case of where statistics and the naked eye agree. He looks the part and he compares favorably statistically with some of the top young blueliners in the game. The actualization of his defensive ability on a consistent basis in the NHL at 20 years old is surprising though.
The Coyotes in general might not have many compelling storylines, but the continued development of Ekman-Larsson into a premier two way defender should provide a significant talking point in the coming years for a team looking to establish positive storylines in the wake of several years of ownership chaos. He may never have the offensive ability of Karlsson (who does?) or the overall game of Doughty, but there are many tangible reasons to believe that Ekman-Larsson is close to becoming a household name across the NHL-watching community.