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Coyotes need Oliver Ekman-Larsson to reach his elite potential

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (23) works against San Jose Sharks' Chris Tierney (50) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 9, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson reported to training camp this season looking noticeably lighter in spirit. He had his brother, Kevin, by his side for support. He was threatening to turn off reporters’ tape recorders during a press conference, and he admitted it was good to get back to work.

“Last year was really tough for me and my family but it was kind of nice to get the summer to kind of deal with that stuff and to get back here and focus on hockey,” he said. “That’s going to help me to move forward.”

The Coyotes need Ekman-Larsson to move forward. There are no gripes about what he produced last season when he posted 39 points, his lowest total since the 2012-13 lockout season. He played through a broken thumb for about six weeks and he privately endured the failing health of his mom, Annika, who died of cancer two weeks before Ekman-Larsson took a leave of absence to be with his family for the final three games of the season.

“It’s hard to focus on the ice and everything when so much is happening outside the rink and it’s close to the family,” said Kevin Ekman-Larsson, who signed a minor-league contract with the Tucson Roadrunners in May and is taking part in Coyotes training camp. “I’m proud of him, how he handled that.”

The Coyotes still need more. Ekman-Larsson is the team’s best player, new coach Rick Tocchet wants the offense and the power play to run through him in Tocchet’s up-tempo approach, and Ekman-Larsson is eligible to sign a lucrative contract extension next summer before he enters the final year of six-year contract with an average annual value of $5.5 million that will pay him $6.5 million and $7 million the last two years.

“He wants to be one of the best and that’s music to my ears,” Tocchet said. “I want him to be the best and we’re going to help him try to be one of the best defenseman in the league.

“I watch video of him. He’s a hell of a player. I’m anxious to work with him. There’s some stuff that I think I can help him with — and [assistants] Johnny MacLean and Scott Allen. The way that we’re going to play I think is going to help him, too.”

The Coyotes did everything they could this offseason to help Ekman-Larsson flourish. They acquired three-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson from Chicago to mentor Ekman-Larsson and play alongside him. They signed his brother to a minor-league contract to give Oliver support in the wake of his mom’s death and to underscore their commitment to signing a new contract next summer. And they brought in Tocchet, a coach whose emphasis on pushing the pace and asking defensemen to join the rush should play to Ekman-Larsson’s strengths, with Hjalmarsson protecting him.

“I want people to think I am a better player than what I showed last year and I know that I am, but it’s fun that they expect you to be good every single day and they expect you to score goals; they expect you to do everything out there,” Ekman-Larsson said. “That’s why I’m playing hockey and that’s why I’m good at it. I like to have a lot of pressure on my shoulders.”

Ekman-Larsson, 26, may be carrying a little more pressure this season if he is elected captain or alternate captain. He’d be replacing Shane Doan, who held that role for 14 seasons and became a Valley icon.

“I don’t think you’re going to find a same leader but I think you can lead in different ways,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I would say that I show it on the ice. I’m a quiet guy and I’ve always been and I always will be. That’s all I have to do: just be myself.

“It’s fun that people talk about ‘you should be the next captain,’ but to be honest with you, I haven’t heard anything and Tocchet, he’s new to this organization and he needs to get to know everybody. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I wouldn’t say no if they asked me.”

Nor will Ekman-Larsson say no to contract overtures next summer. Some media outlets have speculated that he wants out of Arizona after his contract expires, but Ekman-Larsson rolls his eyes when he hears this.

“I don’t know where to start on that,” he said. “I’m super happy with the organization, I’m super happy with the state of Arizona and this is my home. I hope it will be for a long, long time.

“I haven’t really thought about the contract yet. First of all, I’m going to try to have a good year here and try to get better as a player and as a person and as a teammate. That’s all I have to focus on now and everything else will play out.”

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