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Oliver Ekman-Larsson returns to Arizona with a new lease on NHL life

Craig Morgan Avatar
January 2, 2024
Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads all Florida Panthers defensemen in goals (7) and points (18).

There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when Oliver Ekman-Larsson returns to the ice in Arizona in street clothes. It won’t be because he is injured and out of his team’s lineup. It will be because he has retired and the Coyotes are honoring him by inducting him into the team’s ring of honor.

There is no argument to be made over Ekman-Larsson’s worthiness. He is the Coyotes franchise leader for most games played by a defenseman (769), most goals by a defenseman (128), most assists by a defenseman (260), most points by a defenseman (388), most power-play goals by a defenseman (55), most game-winning goals by a defenseman (31), most shots by a defenseman (1,730) and average time on ice per game by a defenseman (23:25). 

He put up what is probably the best season by a defenseman in Coyotes history when he had 21 goals and 55 points in 2015-16 and should have been a Norris Trophy finalist, if not the winner. He topped 14 goals in five separate seasons and he was a critical piece in the Coyotes’ run to the 2012 Western Conference Final, logging the most minutes of any Arizona player in that postseason by a full three minutes over everyone else.

He is one of four captains in franchise history (the other three, Keith Tkachuk, Teppo Numminen and Shane Doan are all in the ring of honor).

Then there’s the community aspect of OEL. During his 11 seasons in the Valley, no player gave more of his time to the Coyotes’ assorted charities and community work. Unless the Coyotes decide to fête Keith Yandle, the next induction should be for No. 23.

“I never really thought about that, but it’s crazy when you say it,” Ekman-Larsson said by phone on Monday as he headed to the airport for a flight to Arizona for the Florida Panthers’ game against the Coyotes on Tuesday at Mullett Arena. “That sounds pretty damn good. That would be an honor if that ever happens. Arizona meant so much to me for so many years.”

It’s no secret how that relationship ended, and it’s no secret how things played out in OEL’s two seasons in Vancouver, the latter portion of which was played under new coach and former Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet. 

“Getting bought out was kind of a shock,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I didn’t see it coming, but we had to look for a new place. I just felt like Florida was a good fit. They had a good run last year [to the Stanley Cup Final], but at the same time, they felt like they could improve a lot and they were not satisfied with what they did. They wanted to get better. That came into play in my decision — the changes that we could make on the team and still be a really, really good team.”

Oliver Ekman-Larsson leads all Florida Panthers defensemen in goals (7) and points (18). (Getty Images)

The weight of expectations is no longer hanging over Ekman-Larsson in the form of that eight-year, $66 million extension that he signed in the summer of 2019. OEL will still get a significant payout from the Canucks through the 2030-31 season, but the one-year deal that he signed with Florida for $2.25 million, and the role that he finds himself in have allowed him to get back to basics.

After playing heavy minutes earlier this season while defensemen Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad were injured, Ekman-Larsson is now playing on the Panthers’ third pair with Dmitry Kulikov, while running the second power play unit. He is averaging just 16:37 of ice time this month on a team that sits third in the Eastern Conference in points (46), yet he still leads all Panthers defensemen in goals and points.

“I think if you’re looking at the points, and that’s what everybody always does, it looks good, but I feel like I’ve always put up half a point per game in my career,” he said. “More than that, I just wanted to get back to playing good hockey.

“It’s funny how it works. You’re playing good and you’re not scoring or putting up points and then you have the worst game of your season and you end up with two points and everybody thinks you were great. You can’t always look at that stuff, but overall, I feel like my play is back to where it’s supposed to be and I’m having fun and feeling good, body-wise.”

Ekman-Larsson was slowed by a broken foot that he sustained at the IIHF World Championship in May 2022. He didn’t have enough time to get it back to 100 percent, and then he broke it again on Feb. 15, 2023 against the Rangers, ending his season.

“I really noticed it in the way I moved,” he said. “It was hard to do everything I like to do.

“I got a lot of time to heal up and rehab and work hard in the summer. I got on the ice early — at the beginning of the end of May, beginning of June — so I think that helped me a lot. The game is getting faster and quicker so you’ve got to keep up with the young guys.”

Oliver Ekman-Larsson holds the Coyotes franchise records for most games played by a defenseman (769), goals (128), assists (260), points (388), power-play goals (55), game-winning goals (31), shots (1,730) and average time on ice per game (23:25). (Getty Images)

Ekman-Larsson understands that he is likely in the latter stages of his career. He is 32 and he joked that the only reason he chose No. 91 this season is because that represents his birth year.

“I’m old, remember?” he said, laughing.

He’s got a pretty good set-up whenever he retires. Although he sold his house in Arizona, he has built a compound back in Sweden where his dad and he live in separate houses on the same lot. Oliver’s brother, Kevin, is playing for Tingsryds AIF in HockeyAllsvenskan, the second tier of ice hockey in Sweden. He lives a block away. The three spend a lot of time together, something that Oliver knows would have made his mother happy.

“We play a lot of paddle tennis,” he said. “We all get to hang out and see each other and do dinners. Sometimes, we don’t see each other for two weeks, but then it’s just nice to have them close, you know?”

The emotions of returning to Arizona aren’t the same as when he returned for the first time as a member of the Canucks, but Ekman-Larsson still sounds a bit wistful when discussing the franchise he figured he’d be a part of for the rest of his career.

“I’m happy for them that the team is doing better — for the guys that I played with and for Stan [Wilson] and Tony [Silva] and for you guys,” he said. “You guys deserve so much to have a good team and it seems like the guys are figuring it out so it’s been fun to watch.

“I spent so many years in Arizona that it became my second home and it still has a big, big place in my heart so it’s great to come back. That’s just how it works sometimes. It’s part of the business. When you struggle, changes are gonna be made. It sucks when you get bought out or traded or both, but you just have to fight and get better. Something good is always going to come out of everything. It just depends on how you look at that stuff. I think if you have a positive mindset, you’re gonna be fine.”

Top profile of Oliver-Ekman-Larsson via Getty Images

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