Twenty-three is Oliver Ekman-Larsson's lucky number. He wears it on the back of his Arizona Coyotes jersey and is having the best offensive season of his NHL career at the age of 23.
Two and three also add up to five, the number idol Nicklas Lidstrom wore during a legendary career with the Detroit Red Wings. Ekman-Larsson has a long way to go to reach Lidstrom's level, but at his age the potential is there for plenty of growth.
"If Oliver wants to strive to be a player similar as Lidstrom, I think that's a great goal to have," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Can he get there? I'm not sure. But to have a goal to strive to be a player like that shows that you want to get better every day."
With the regular-season winding down, Ekman-Larsson's 23 goals are more than Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens or any other NHL defenceman has scored.
Ekman-Larsson made a conscious decision to shoot more this season but also credited luck for some of his goals. He scored from beyond the red-line in Toronto — naturally with 23 seconds left on a Maple Leafs power play. He looked up the scoreboard and thought to put the puck on net.
"You need to get lucky once in a while," Ekman-Larsson said. "My teammates have been doing a really good job finding me pucks, screening the goalies, and I think that's the biggest thing."
Tippett said Ekman-Larsson has a deceptive release on his shot that makes it difficult for goaltenders to read off his blade. Having Keith Yandle around for setup passes until the trade deadline also helped, but the young Swede can score in a variety of fashions.
"It's amazing: He scores on the power play and he scores on end-to-end rushes," Tippett said. "He's a top player that shoots the puck very well. He joins the attack a lot, so there's all those factors leading to him getting opportunities to score."
Defensively, Ekman-Larsson still needs some work. Tippett pointed specifically to how he reads rushes getting back and how he positions himself in front of the net as areas he needs to improve on.
Ekman-Larsson wants to be more then just a good offensive defenceman and is in the process of sharpening his skills in his own end.
"Just make a good first pass and be a harder defender and just be a little bit harder in front of our net," he said. "I'm working on that right now, so I can start off next year being a better defender."
If Ekman-Larsson rounds out his game, his salary-cap hit of US$5.5 million for the next four seasons will be one of the league's best bargains. A Norris Trophy dark horse a couple of years ago, Tippett said Ekman-Larsson is a better player now and expects him to keep improving as he reaches the prime of his career.
There's plenty of uncertainty in the Coyotes' near future, but Ekman-Larsson is a franchise cornerstone. Tippett named him an alternate captain after Arizona made some trades and has seen a maturation process follow.
"He wants to be part of the solution with this team," Tippett said. "He's committed to this organization, and the leadership part along with the game is what has really come on this year."
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