Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson on 8-year extension: ‘My heart is in Arizona’
Amid rampant external speculation that he would leave, Oliver Ekman-Larsson always said he wanted to stay in Arizona and play for the Coyotes. When it came time to prove it, he likely left some money on the table to remain with the team that drafted him sixth overall in 2009.
Ekman-Larsson, 26, officially signed an eight-year, $66 million extension on Sunday with an average annual value (AAV) of $8.25 million. He has one year remaining on a six-year, $33 million deal that began in the 2013-14 season and will pay him $7 million in salary for the 2018-19 season. The new deal kicks in for the 2019-20 season and will keep him under contract through the 2026-27 season.
“I love living in Arizona and I love playing for the Coyotes so it was a no-brainer for me,” Ekman-Larsson said on a conference call from Sweden on Sunday. “I didn’t really think about leaving or going anywhere else, to be honest with you, but it’s nice to get an end to people asking me if I would stay or go somewhere else. I’ve been focused on staying in Arizona. That’s where I want to play. I think we have something good coming.”
There were reports that Ekman-Larsson could have commanded as much as $10 million per season on the open market. While other teams, particularly those in Canadian or large U.S. markets, could have offered him a higher AAV, the lower cost of living in Arizona likely mitigated some of those differences. In addition, per terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Arizona was the only team that could offer Ekman-Larsson the additional eighth year. Other clubs could have offered him a maximum of seven years.
Those factors aside, Ekman-Larsson said he never really thought about whether he left money on the table.
“It’s just money,” he said. “It’s not going to make you happier if you go somewhere else and make more. My heart is in Arizona and that’s why I stayed.”
Ekman-Larsson played the first seven seasons of his career alongside former Coyotes captain Shane Doan. Doan’s unwavering loyalty to the organization through all of its ownership, financial and on-ice struggles made an impact on Ekman-Larsson.
“Just being around Shane for all these years helped me to realize there’s more to life than money,” he said. “Being loyal to your team and people that really care and believe in you, that’s something I had in the back of my head and that’s why I wanted to stay.
“I actually called Shane Doan before I made my final decision. I talked to him a little bit and just asked some questions and it helped me a lot. It was nice to talk to him and get his opinion on it. He didn’t say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ He just helped me to clear my mind a little bit. It was nice to have the opinion of an old teammate to weigh in on this.”
Doan joked that he told Ekman-Larsson to leave.
“In all seriousness, though, you don’t find top-10 defensemen in the NHL,” Doan said. “I believe D is the most important position. It’s vital to have one of those elite guys any for any organization and to add someone who cares about the organization as much as Oliver does is special. You can’t lose those kinds of people.”
Ekman-Larsson had 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists) in 82 games last season. Over the final two months, plus three April games, he had six goals and 13 assists.
He led the team in average ice time per game at 23:40.
“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. He believes a better understanding of Tocchet’s system and a more developed relationship with his coach will lead to better things next season.
He also thinks having all six of the team’s top defensemen from last season under contract will give the team a head start.
“I think it’s one of the best D-corps in the league, to be honest with you,” Ekman-Larsson said. “Having [Niklas] Hjalmarsson, who has won the Cup three times as well being a great leader for the young guys, and [Alex] Goligoski having a really good year last year, Kevin [Connauton] coming back, too, I think it starts from the blue line and the goalies. We have a lot of confidence in our D-corps and goalies and that can help the team.”
Throughout the season, Coyotes general manager John Chayka was quick to shoot down any suggestion that he was looking to trade Ekman-Larsson, but the Coyotes did want clarity from the player and his agent, Kevin Epp, before the NHL Draft in Dallas in late June. He got that clarity in early June.
“It’s a huge moment for our entire organization,” Chayka said. “Our fans should be proud, our ownership should be proud, our staff and everyone involved. A superstar caliber player has the option to go to maybe any of the 31 teams and felt the loyalty and felt the belief enough in what we’re doing to sign on long term.
“His goal is the same goal as ours. He wants to get in the playoffs and ultimately compete for a Stanley Cup. To date, he’s done his part. He’s been a productive, very effective player for us. I’ve got to do my best to surround him with the best possible people; guys that work hard day in and day out to build this organization the same way he has. We’ve made big strides and I’m excited about the future. I’ve never felt as good about the organization as I do today. Oliver is going to lead us. I’m a big believer that you are only as good as your best player. He’s a superstar so we’re in good hands.”
With Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty also off the market after signing an eight-year contract with an average annual value around $11 million with the Los Angeles Kings, two of the three blue-chip defensemen who could have become free agents after next season are now locked up long term. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson is the third.
In 576 career games, Ekman-Larsson has 102 goals and 290 points. He reached the 20-goal plateau in back-to-back seasons from 2014-16, recording a career-high 23 goals in 2014-15 which led the team. Since entering the league in 2010, Ekman-Larsson leads all defensemen in game-winning goals with 28.
Ekman-Larsson went through some trials last season following the death of his mother and a difficult transition to Tocchet’s style, but he believes he is in a much better place to succeed now.
“I feel comfortable in my game,” he said. “Last year was a difficult year to get back on my feet and really having fun with hockey again after my mom passed. It was a good year to just get back on my feet and have fun with it again. That was my main goal.
“Hockey is not everything but it means a lot to me and it helped me. It was nice to be around teammates and the sport I love. I’m really excited for this season and just to focus on hockey.”