Monday February 15th, 2016

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One afternoon after practice at Gila River Arena, Oliver Ekman-Larsson ducks into the Coyotes’ film room, shuts the door and settles into a chair in the first row. Resting his leg atop a protein shake bottle, the 24-year-old Coyotes defenseman adjusts his snapback hat—he’s casual off the ice like always—and apologizes for the busted lip he sustained during a recent game, wondering if the swelling will affect his ability to chat. Ekman-Larsson never wears mouth guards and has no intention to change, accepting whatever future consequences may come with the gamble. “I’m ready for it,” he says. “I think if I get a couple teeth knocked out, I’d look more like a hockey player.”

At 6' 2", 200 pounds and armed with a sizzling wrist shot and speedy puck-moving ability, Ekman-Larsson is considered one of the NHL’s elite defensemen. So far this season, his sixth in Arizona, his 16 goals trail only San Jose‘s Brent Burns among NHL blue liners, his 23 power play points rank second behind Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, and no one on the back end has scored more game-winners than his seven. Almost halfway through a six-year extension signed in March 2013, the sleek Swede carries an annual salary cap hit of $5.5 million, making him what one Western Conference executive calls, “the best deal in hockey right now.”

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Here in the desert, where Ekman-Larsson’s blown-up picture is the first thing teammates see upon leaving the dressing room and the magical nickname “Harry Potter” endures from a rookie-year Halloween party, praise radiates like sunshine. Teammate Shane Doan, the longest-tenured captain in the league, says Ekman-Larsson is “our best player, and it’s not even close.” Admittedly biased, forward Mikkel Boedker considers his roommate and landlord “a top-five defensemen in the league.” GM Don Maloney has compared Ekman-Larsson to Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty, at least in terms of internal impact.

Take, for instance, the experience of veteran forward Antoine Vermette, who fondly remembers his first game as Ekman-Larsson’s teammate in Feb. 2012. Vermette had just been traded from Columbus to Arizona and he joined the Coyotes on a road trip in Calgary. Ekman-Larsson, meanwhile, was midway through his second season, one of the rare few who has made the leap straight from Sweden’s tier-2 league into the NHL.

“On the bench, I was sitting between Shane and Ray Whitney and I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’” Vermette says. “I didn’t realize how good he is. From that point, I was amazed.”

That jolting revelation is not singular to Vermette. When European scout Christian Ruuttu, now with the Kings’ organization, saw Ekman-Larsson playing for a Division I club, Ruuttu didn’t bother to write a report, only jotting down the name of “this long, skinny D-man with hockey sense and a good defensive game.” The next year, in 2008, he followed up at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, where Ekman-Larsson and Sweden won bronze. The following summer, Arizona snatched him sixth in the NHL draft, four picks behind countryman Victor Hedman.

“That’s where I said, ‘OK, there’s that skinny D-man I saw last year,’” Ruuttu says. “That’s where it all started.”

***

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Technically, Ekman-Larsson’s journey began in Tingsryd, a small town where the population only barely outpaces the capacity of the local rink. Hockey ran through his bloodlines: His grandfather represented Sweden in the 1972 Winter Olympics and his father currently serves as GM for Tingsryds AIF. Located five hours by car from Stockholm, a big grocery store employs many of Tingsryd’s citizens, Ekman-Larsson says, but he rarely found room for work outside hockey.

“Should’ve probably spent more time in school,” he says with a knowing laugh. “But it worked out anyways.”

Such self-awareness has guided Ekman-Larsson throughout his life. While some teammates moved away after finishing high school, he decided to enroll in college for one year in Tingsryd, feeling unprepared to handle life alone. During the 2012-13 NHL lockout, when he initially hoped to sign in the Swedish Elite League, a little reflection convinced him that spending time with the Portland Pirates in American Hockey League, on North American-sized ice, would advance his development more than a few months back home. When certain moments in Arizona call for Ekman-Larsson to voice his opinion, he does so firmly and without bombast. “It’s not a loud confidence,” Doan says. It’s why the Pirates named him an alternate captain for a stint that lasted only 20 games and why the Coyotes did the same last season.

“To give a player like that more of a voice in the room, it wasn’t a difficult decision,” coach Dave Tippett says. “It was the right thing to do at the right time and his game had evolved into that, and his personality had evolved into that. That was a no-brainer in that one.”

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It’s why Doan believes his successor to wearing the C is already here.

“He has the personality and the character to be one of the best captains ever,” says Doan, who is eight months away from his 40th birthday. “He’s an incredible player, which always makes it easier if you’re captain. He has that Jonathan Toews in him, where he can do everything and always does everything. Just that special player.”

And yet, Doan and others speak as though the world has neglected to notice Ekman-Larsson, who has averaged more than 25 minutes per game during the past four seasons, rarely gives away the puck according to NHL.com statistics, and last year recorded only the 13th 20-goal campaign by an NHL defenseman in this century.

“The things he does, guys don’t do,” Doan says. “Guys might do it in shinny. But that’s because they’re just casually doing it. He does stuff no one does.”

This fits the subject just fine. Ekman-Larsson maintains active Twitter and Instagram accounts with follower counts that top 21,000 and 27,000, respectively, and he recently started a clothing line—OEL of Sweden—with the help of a few friends back home. But he’s also quiet by nature, deferential with the television remote at home with Boedker, and perfectly content with an afternoon on the golf course. Plus, he understands the calculus of playing in a Sun Belt market for a franchise that is hoping to avoid its fourth straight postseason absence: If you win, people will come.

“That’s a good thing for me, that makes me push myself a little extra and makes me work harder,” he  says. “I think it was good the first couple years I came over and no one really cared about me, in a good way. They didn’t really recognize me. But that helped me develop my game, just go under the radar a little bit. I think that helped me a lot. People start looking at me in a different way. I think if you’re a good player, you’re going to get recognized. So I just have to keep working hard.”

As Ekman-Larsson sank deeper into his film room chair, the Coyotes were trying to right themselves in a five-game losing streak, which knocked them further from the Western Conference wild card picture. They would rebound the next night, pasting Calgary 4–1 at home behind Ekman-Larsson’s two assists and a goal, his fourth three-point game this season, which ranks second behind Karlsson among defensemen.

After changing into a sharp black suit, he emerges from the locker room. His busted lip is getting better. All his teeth remain intact. He offers a handshake and a smile before heading down the hallway, bound for a back-to-back in San Jose—and whatever else may come next. But it's pretty clear now that the NHL’s best best-kept secret has what it takes to handle just about anything.

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