Oliver Ekman-Larsson a critical piece of Coyotes’ summer plans
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes took care of an important piece of business when they signed goalie Antti Raanta to a three-year extension on April 6. They have another, equally vital assignment to complete in the next three months.
Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is eligible to sign a contract extension when free agency begins on July 1. Ekman-Larsson, 26, has one year left on a six-year, $33 million contract he signed in March of 2013. The deal carries an average annual value of $5.5 million, with a $7 million salary next season.
“I would obviously like to figure something out,” he said Monday during exit interviews at Gila River Arena. “I’ve said it so many times. This is where I want to be. Hopefully we can work something out.”
Ekman-Larsson had 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists) in 82 games. He led the team in average ice time per game at 23:40. He had six goals and 13 assists over the final two months (plus three April games) with a plus-eight rating.
“The last two months he was terrific,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “His leadership was great. I liked the way he played. The team fed off him.”
Like the team, however, Ekman-Larsson got off to a rocky start.
He had eight goals and 22 points through the first four months of the season and carried a well-publicized, if imprecise minus-32 rating, the worst in the league.
“I think it took some time to get used to the new coaching staff and the system that we were playing,” he said.
The struggles were not limited to the ice. When Shane Doan and the Coyotes parted ways last summer, general manager John Chayka said the plan was to name Ekman-Larsson captain. When Tocchet arrived, however, he opted for multiple alternate captains as he learned his personnel.
Ekman-Larsson admitted Monday that the reversal of an earlier decision stung.
“I would lie if I said I wasn’t little bit surprised,” he said. “We talked about it and I thought it was going to happen, so in my mind it was a little bit disappointing, but at the same time I thought Toc did the right thing, too. He’s coming to a new team. He doesn’t know anybody.
“I wasn’t mad. I was just excited for the opportunity and in my mind, I probably built it up a little too much. That was probably my fault. You got excited when the news came out. When Shane was leaving, he said that they told him that they were going to give me the ‘C.’ When I got over it, I didn’t really think about it any more but it’s something I would love to do and I think I’ll be good at it.”
Tocchet admitted Monday that he and Ekman-Larsson weren’t on the same page early in the season.
“The first couple months, he wasn’t good and we had a tough time communicating, but there were a lot of factors to that,” said Tocchet, who was hired in part for his communications skills and eventually took that to heart with Ekman-Larsson.
“[I have] a great relationship with him [now],” he said.
Ekman-Larsson agreed that his relationship with his coach has done an about-face from the start of the season.
“It was like a feeling-out process in the beginning,” he said. “I’m kind of a laid-back guy so I’m not going to go after it and chase to build a relationship. I kind of let it play out and I feel like he was doing a little bit of the same. He was trying to see what kind of person I am.
“We were talking right off the start, but getting to know somebody takes time and he’s got 22 other guys that he needs to keep an eye on, too, and it’s his first year so it’s not easy. I feel like he knows what I think of him now and if we’re going to have success … we need to have a good relationship.”
The Coyotes have an advantage in that they can offer Ekman-Larsson an eight-year deal this summer, per terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Other teams would only be able to offer him a seven-year deal if he were to make it to free agency in July 2019.
The trick will be how much money the Coyotes can and are willing to spend, given their budget constraints and six regular players on entry-level contracts that will need raises in the near future.
“I’ve got to continue to build this team with an eye for the future,” Chayka said. “We’ve got a lot of people who I have high hopes for and expectations that they can perform. We’ve got to plan for that.”
If the Coyotes have not agreed to a new deal with Ekman-Larsson by the NHL Draft from June 22-23 in Dallas, they could be forced to trade him to avoid losing him for nothing the following summer. They could also let the final season play out with the hope that they could sign him before he becomes a free agent.
Ekman-Larsson’s agent, Kevin Epp, said the talks are progressing in a positive direction.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with John the last few months on all the players,” said Epp, who also represents Raanta and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. “I think it’s all going to just have to take the course and path it’s going to take. Everybody feels good about the way the organization is going right now and the direction of ownership and the direction of the team and its success.”
While he awaits the outcome of those negotiations, Ekman-Larsson said he would return to Sweden on Monday. That will afford him more time to spend with his dad, who lost his wife and Oliver’s mother, Annika, last spring after a 10-year battle with cancer. She was 51.
Tocchet said losing his own mother this season gave him perspective on Ekman-Larsson’s loss.
“I can’t even fathom,” Tocchet said of Annika’s age. “I’m blessed to have had [my mom] that long. You lose your parents at a young age; I can’t even imagine that. That’s really tough.”
While back in Europe, Ekman-Larsson plans to take part in the IIHF World Championship in Denmark in May. He considers it a spring training of sorts.
“I want to get used to playing that time of year because I think we’re going to be back in the playoffs here soon,” Ekman-Larsson said, smiling. “I want to get my body used to that.”