Something isn’t right with Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Dec 21, 2016, 9:25 AM | Updated: 11:22 am
Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal (12) skates with the puck against Arizona Coyotes defenseman Olive...
Minnesota Wild center Eric Staal (12) skates with the puck against Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (23), of Sweden, during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)
(AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson doesn’t look right. You can see it in the way he’s playing. You can hear it in the way he talks.

While outsiders and casual observers continue to laud him as a Norris Trophy candidate and one of the league’s most underappreciated players (this is still true), the fact is he has not played like an elite NHL defenseman lately.

It’s possible he’s playing hurt after that big hit from Calgary’s Lance Bouma on Dec. 8, or even that big hit from Calgary’s Micheal Ferland on Nov. 16. It’s likely that he is taking a lot of weight on his shoulders as a leader of an increasingly young team. Whatever the root cause, the Coyotes need their best skater to get back on track as soon as possible.

“It’s tough; I can tell you that,” Ekman-Larsson said Tuesday. “When you don’t have the confidence out there with the puck or without the puck, you’ll feel like you’re one step behind every play. It’s a challenge. I’ve never had this feeling before.”

The easiest way to determine Ekman-Larsson is struggling is to look at his production. He has six goals and 15 points, tying him for 10th and 28th, respectively, among NHL defensemen in those categories. They’re not bad totals, but they’re not elite totals and they’re not what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the smooth-skating Swede, who had 21 and 23 goals the past two seasons.

Coyotes coach Dave Tippett noted that the team’s power-play chances are down from last season and that has contributed to a slide in OEL’s production, but he also acknowledged that the defenseman’s game hasn’t been the same. When he and associate coach Jim Playfair look at his game, they see the problem originating at the other end.

“It’s defending. It starts without the puck,” Tippett said. “Oliver has been a little bit erratic with his play. He had a little reset there the last game [against Calgary] and everything he did was real sound so it’s a step in the right direction.”

The casual observer will notice that Ekman-Larsson has made a handful of bad recent turnovers in his own end that have led to scoring chances, but Playfair said that’s too small a picture to view when analyzing his struggles.

“We put a body of work together — five or 10 games — and look at the whole body of work and say, ‘OK what’s consistently jumping out at us?'” Playfair said. “We identified the bigger issues and he’s crystal clear on them right now.

“When we talk about defending, it’s just managing the rush coverage, getting pucks stopped off the rush, having pucks stop at the offensive blue line and managing his ice from there — playing inside the dots, pushing things out and then closing quick. When you’re focusing on creating offense you drift away from the foundation and we have to get him back to that.”

Tippett said Ekman-Larsson wants the responsibility of being a top player in the NHL, and part of that means having an impact on every game. Ekman-Larsson understands that impact must start at the defensive end.

“I’m a defenseman first of all and I’ve been fortunate enough to score 20-plus goals in two straight seasons here, but I think that’s not going to happen every single year,” he said. “That’s my goal but at the same time I know I have to be a better defender and I know I’ll create a lot of offense from that.”

It’s always a risky business critiquing a player in a sport where injuries are kept under wraps, but if he is hurt, Ekman-Larsson isn’t saying. He’s focusing only on the responsibility that comes with being a team leader and an elite player.

“They pay me good money to do a job out there,” he said. “I know I haven’t been very good but at the same time, this is my seventh year playing here and I haven’t really had to struggle yet so it’s kind of nice to feel it. It’s a challenge. I can learn something from that.”

Oilers at Coyotes

When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday

Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale

TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus

Radio: ESPN 620 AM

Records: Coyotes 11-16-5. Oilers 17-12-5.

Injury report: Coyotes — C Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) and LW Max Domi (hand) are out indefinitely. Oilers — RW Iiro Pakarinen (knee), D Mark Fayne (leg) are Andrew Ference (hip) are on IR. RW Tyler Pitlick left Monday’s game with an undisclosed injury and did not return. Coach Todd McLellan said “it doesn’t look too good.”

Scouting the Oilers: Edmonton beat the Blues in overtime on Monday in St. Louis to improve to 5-2-3 in its last 10 games. … C Connor McDavid leads the team and the NHL with 40 points (28 assists), but has just one goal in 10 December games. … C Leon Draisaitl leads the team with 14 goals. …  Edmonton’s special teams are both ranked in the top 10 in the NHL. The power play (22 percent) is sixth; the penalty kill (83.3) is 10th.

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Something isn’t right with Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson