So the Arizona Coyotes used the sixth overall pick to get Oliver Ekman-Larsson. By the end of this season, they will have spent almost $28 million developing him into one of the league’s elite offensive defensemen. The team and Ekman-Larsson have spent a lot of lean years together. And now that things might be on the verge of finally turning around for this group, they’re going to trade him?
That’s what many people in the hockey industry would have you believe. There is only one very slight flaw in that line of thinking. And that is that it makes absolutely no sense. What makes sense is the Coyotes announcing on July 1, 2018 - the earliest date they can -that their franchise defenseman has signed an eight-year contract extension. And while anything is possible in the NHL, the smart money should be betting the Coyotes will do just that.
Privately and publicly, the Coyotes see this whole Ekman-Larsson leaving story as a fabricated bunch of nonsense. And they will do everything they can to get this deal done as soon as possible. But it can’t be announced until July 1 at the earliest, so perhaps putting all this to rest and giving them until then would be a wise idea. It will cost them, of course, upwards of an average of $8 million per season on a long-term deal, but the last time we checked, the Coyotes are playing in the NHL and somebody has to bring them up to the salary floor. This is a team that has needed dead contracts belonging to Pavel Datsyuk, Chris Pronger and David Bolland to get up to the floor, so perhaps they’ll want to take a different approach and devote that cap space to players who can actually play for them.
Trading Ekman-Larsson, either now or next season, would send all the wrong messages and run counter what the Coyotes have worked so hard to be so futile to build. The days of them being a feeder system for the rest of the league have to end. And it has to start with Ekman-Larsson. “If they don’t want me, they’re going to trade me,” Ekman-Larsson said after his team’s third straight win, 4-1 over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night, a game in which he scored the game-winner. “I’m happy here and I want to be here and I want to be the guy who turns the thing around. I’m happy here. I love it.”
Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet pointed out that his team, “flushed the first 20 games of the season down the drain,” and the truth is that they’ve almost certainly knocked themselves out of the playoffs already. Over the past five seasons, the last playoff team in the Western Conference has finished with an average of 93 points. In order for the Coyotes to do that, they’d have to play at a .677 points percentage. To put that into perspective, only three teams in the entire league have played better than that so far this season. Not impossible, but not likely either.
And this is a team that is much better than its record has displayed. Monday night marked the 14th time this season in 23 games that the Coyotes have scored first, so they’re not chasing games. They have 14 one-goal losses this season, a good number coming in late-game collapses and their goaltending was atrocious to start the season. They’ve had a brutal road schedule. And after a three-game win streak, it looks like there was nothing wrong with the Coyotes that a three-game trip through the Atlantic Division couldn’t fix.
The Coyotes are building something and this team will be much better in a few years, whether it’s playing in Arizona or elsewhere. They have the front-runner for rookie of the year in Clayton Keller, a guy who drives possession and draws penalties like few other young players in the game. They seem to have solved their goaltending woes with Antti Raanta – which makes signing him to a long-term extension before he hits unrestricted free agency July 1 their actual top priority – and their young core of players is making progress. And they have the most dominant line in the American League right now with Dylan Strome centering Lawson Crouse and Nick Merkley. In a perfect world, Strome becomes the second coming of Jason Spezza, a player with skating issues who needed to dominate and learn how to be a pro player in the minors before coming up to the NHL. Count on Strome, who’s average 1.5 points per game in the AHL right now, to be up with the Coyotes in, oh, about 30 games or so.
To trade Ekman-Larsson in the midst of developing what could be a special group of players would send all the wrong messages to the fan base, the players in the room and the hockey world. With seven shots and 11 shot attempts Monday night, Ekman-Larsson is shooting more again, something he couldn’t do last season when he played three months with a broken thumb.
Talk of his future doesn’t seem to bother Ekman-Larsson much. That has something to do with the fact that he’s a pretty poised player and that he knows deep down he wants to stay – pending the Coyotes securing their future with a rink deal – and the team wants him there. All the elements are there for a long-term deal and very few of them are there to support a trade. Until the Coyotes sign him to an extension, the chatter will continue, but nobody parts with a 26-year-old player in his prime who has the ability to score 20 goals a year from the back end. Chances are, it won’t happen in this case, either.
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