A wide-ranging Q&A with Oliver Ekman-Larsson on a tumultuous offseason and what lies ahead
Captain discusses trade talks, leadership, repairing relationships, staying in Arizona
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Oliver Ekman-Larsson has seen his share of wild Coyotes offseasons. He watched a parade of potential owners come and go in his first three NHL seasons, all played under league stewardship. He has been through a lockout. He was here for the nail-biting sale of the team to IceArizona in 2013, and he watched coach Dave Tippett, goalie Mike Smith and captain Shane Doan depart the franchise in the summer of 2017.
The 2020 offseason topped them all, however. A global pandemic halted the season in March, GM John Chayka awkwardly departed the team before the start of the postseason, the league stripped the team of draft picks for illegally fitness testing draft eligible players, the team misspent one of its few 2020 picks on controversial defenseman Mitchell Miller, and the Coyotes attempted to trade Ekman-Larsson, their longest tenured player and their captain.
As the trade talks played out, Ekman-Larsson leaned on those closest to him for advice and support, whether it was his agent, his father, his brother or teammates.
“I always talk to O. He’s one of my best friends,” Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “But I didn’t really need to say much. He knows how to handle these things. He has been in the league for a long time so he’s pretty good at handling it all by himself.”
Ekman-Larsson offered a brief glimpse into his thought process in an interview with the Swedish outlet hockeysverige.se late last month, but azcoyotesinsider.com caught up with the Coyotes captain on Thursday for an in-depth interview on a variety of topics.
Can you retrace your steps since the Coyotes were eliminated from the playoffs? Where have you been and what have you been doing?
I came back to Arizona right after we were done playing and I was here for about two weeks before I headed back home to Sweden. It was nice to spend some time with my family and friends when times are like this in the world. I was home for probably two and a half months.
I just stayed in my hometown because I just got done building a house back home so I wanted to spend as much time there as I could. I built it on the same lot as my dad (Patric) so we’re neighbors now. We actually built a paddle tennis court right between the houses so we spent a lot of time on that, too. I’ve got a spa in the house with a sauna and a hot tub which is really nice to have when you can’t do much. I’ve been spending a lot of time there after workouts.
Who’s the best paddle tennis player, you, your brother or your dad?
Most hours on the court is probably Kevin so I’m going to have to say that he’s better than me right now, but the most improved is my dad. He lost a lot of weight so it was good for him.
With three months’ perspective, how do you evaluate last season?
If we would have said that we were going to make the playoffs before the year, I think everybody would have been happy. That was our goal and we did it. I know it was a different year and different times. If it was a normal season we can’t really guess what would have happened but we were in the playoffs and I’m super happy that our team got to experience that with a lot of young players and players that are going to benefit from that.
I thought against Nashville we played some good hockey and defended well and won against a really good hockey club. When you win the first series, the expectations go up a little bit. I didn’t think it was that bad against Colorado. I thought they played a little bit smarter than us, but it was just shitty the way it ended the last two games. It probably didn’t look great but you can’t forget that you played against one of the best lines in the NHL. They were unbelievable and we couldn’t find a way to close them down.
You were asked a question about the team’s leadership after the Coyotes were eliminated in such emphatic fashion. A lot of people interpreted your response and Derek Stepan’s reaction at the podium as sort of an eye roll at the question but I didn't want to interpret that response without asking you about it.
It’s kind of hard to get a question like that thrown at your face right after you get eliminated and you're done playing for the season after putting in a lot of work. You’re already disappointed in the way it ended, and getting asked about that in that way, I just felt like our team didn’t deserve that so I said, ‘You can blame me if you want to.’
I really feel like we have so many good leaders on our team. It’s not just me and Hammer (Niklas Hjalmarsson) and Step. I feel like we rely on everybody like I have been saying so many times. We have a lot of good leaders that haven’t been wearing a letter. That’s not the issue so it was a frustrating question to get. I should probably have handled it a lot better but it’s easy for people that haven’t played a game or have just been watching the game to talk. I’ve been in the stands, too, watching hockey and I’m the best at (critiquing) it when I’m sitting there. I get that side of it, too, but you're sad and mad and have a lot of feelings going on.
How did you react to the news that the Coyotes wanted to trade you?
It has been a tough summer break here because I’ve never been in this situation. I’ve never been talked about being moved so it was hard on top of the COVID stuff going on and not knowing what was going to happen next. It affects your confidence. You start thinking, ‘I might not be a good player any more. I might be too old.” At the same time, I understand it’s part of the business.
I just told them I didn’t want to stand in their way if they wanted to move me for business reasons. I kind of had a talk with the ownership and my agent (Kevin Epp). There were so many parts that were involved.
Were you surprised by the request?
(Sighs). Yeah, for me, I never wanted to leave. This is where I want to play and this is where I signed my long-term contract. I want to spend my entire career here. At the same time, I get the business side of things but when you haven’t been in that situation before, when you hear that and you realize this might be it, it's not a lot of fun. You start thinking too much. You can’t sleep and there’s a lot of emotions going through your head.
I’m glad it turned out this way but again, I get the business side of things with everything going on in the world. Saving money is a big reason and I’m the biggest contract on the team. I'm not stupid. I know how it works. Somehow, I knew it was happening but maybe I didn’t want to believe it.
Why were Vancouver and Boston the two teams to which you approved a trade?
I don’t want to say too much but at the same time I knew Boston had some interest in me before I signed my contract here. That was one of the teams I felt wanted me and showed interest in me, and I spent a lot of time in Boston when I played in Portland, Maine in the lockout year (2012-13), so I was familiar with the city and I liked it when I was there.
With Vancouver, I have obviously been playing there a lot because they are in our division. I have a lot of Swedish friends that have played there and really liked it so I knew a lot about the city and my agent lives there and I have visited him. I thought they did a good job in the playoffs and played good hockey and they have a good young team so I had a good feeling about that.
What advice were you getting from Kevin Epp that you can share?
It was mostly like, ‘Don’t beat yourself up. You’re a good person. You’re a good hockey player.” That’s kind of the advice I got from Kevin and my family and everybody who supports me and knew how this went down. You start thinking about all that stuff and ‘What’s the reason they want to trade me?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’
It has been an interesting offseason and I feel like I have learned a lot from that. At the end of the day, everybody looks after themselves. I’m not the type of person who looks after myself but I’ve got to work on that a little bit.
Can you envision the Coyotes approaching you again about a trade or do you consider the matter closed?
That’s a question for (GM) Bill (Armstrong) to be honest with you. There’s not much I can do about it. I’m just trying to stay in the moment. I know everybody says that but I really had a good offseason. I worked out really hard to show that I wanted to be here, wanted to get better and hopefully that transfers into the stuff on the ice. I feel really happy that I am here but if that day comes where they ask again, I will deal with it then.
Will it be difficult to be a Coyote, knowing that they wanted to trade you?
I can only talk about myself. Somewhere down the line here we’re probably going to sit down and talk it through. I don’t have any issues or any problems with the way it went down. Really. I’m going to put that behind me and I know I’m going to put myself 100 percent onto the ice and off the ice and try to be the player and leader that they expect me to be, even if we had a speed bump on the way.
How would you characterize your early relationship with GM Bill Armstrong?
To defend Bill a little bit, too, he came here in a tough time and had a job to do. We had some good conversations but I look forward to getting to know him even better as we get going here. It’s tough for him to come in in this situation and this time with everything going on.
How would you characterize your ongoing relationship with coach Rick Tocchet?
I think we have a great relationship. I think he’s a great coach and I’m excited to play for him again.
We have talked about this before, but it’s always hard for a new coach to come in and get to know all of his players and there’s always going to be times when I look at it one way and he looks at it another, but you’ve got to have that respect for the person and the coach and it goes the other way around with Toc for his players. I feel like that’s not an issue. We have a good relationship and we have been talking about a lot of stuff. It’s not like we agree on everything but at least we talk and at the end we have a good relationship. I don’t see that as a problem.
Is it your understanding that you will still be the captain next season? Has anyone suggested otherwise?
I haven’t heard anything. All I can do is be myself, be the best person and the best player that I can. If they feel like they want to go in a different direction with that, I'm going to be the first guy to support the new captain and keep leading without having that C on my jersey. It’s their decision and I’m going to support whatever they do.
Most analysts don’t expect much from this group next season. Would you say you guys have a collective chip in your shoulder to prove people wrong?
(laughs) I feel like we get that question every single year. We pretty much have the same group of guys, minus a few players. The core group is pretty much the same and I feel like we have a good team and a good group of guys that really wants to battle and play hard for each other. I think we are going to learn a lot from the experience we had in those two (postseason) rounds.
We know what to expect and that you actually have to show up every single day. It’s going to happen that we have bad games but we have to raise the bar where a bad game is still a decent game for us instead of a shitty one.
What do you think this team is capable of?
When I signed here it was to win a Stanley Cup and that’s always what we’re going for, but at the same time you have to take it step by step. (Clayton) Keller is going to get better. (Nick) Schmaltz is going to get better. (Christian) Fischer is going to get better. (Jakob) Chychrun is going to get better. A lot of young guys are going to get better and we’re a pretty good team right now and we’re going to get better and hopefully keep moving in the right direction that I feel we have been the past few years.
What do you make of the additions to the bottom of the forward group?
I have been texting with all of the new guys and I have been seeing them around the rink when we have been doing the testing, too (Ekman-Larsson has been back in Arizona for about a week). They all seem like really good guys and guys who are in good shape. They are the type of players who are going to bring it every single day, tough players, and I think that’s where we slipped off a little bit last year and I think those guys can really help us there.
You must be familiar with countryman Johan Larsson, your 2018 World Championship teammate?
You don’t see much talk about him but I’m telling you, he is hard to play against. It hurts playing against him.
Right now, the entire blue line is returning next season. Can that be an advantage to have such an experienced group?
We have been playing and defending really well. It helps when (goalies Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper) have been playing like they have been the last two seasons, but it’s a positive to have everybody back. I feel like we’re a really tight D corps that talks and tries to help each other out every single day. We have a special D corps.
What do you think of the idea of playing an all-division schedule against a realigned Pacific that has Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota in it?
I don’t know for sure how it’s going to go down but that looks like it’s going to happen. If that’s how we’re going to start up it’s obviously going to be a tough division with a lot of good teams so it’s going to be important that we really raise our standards and move in the right direction.
Can you help people understand why it is that you want to be a Coyote and why you like living in Arizona?
It’s pretty simple. I have been here my whole adult life. I feel at home here. We have great fans and I love playing in front of them when they're in the stands. I basically have two homes: one in Sweden where I grew up and the one where I have been living most of my adult life. This really feels like home and it would be really hard to leave it.
I still believe that we can do something special with hockey here in Arizona. There have been a lot of ups and downs but I do believe we are on the right track.
You have stayed above controversy all of your career. You rarely criticize or complain about any situation. Can you explain that approach?
I don’t think I have ever really thought about it to be honest with you. At the same time, I have probably been negative at times but I don’t like to be negative. I would rather be positive. It's not easy at times when you play a lot and you’re around so many people and personalities and different situations. When you play with 25 guys you’re not going to get all of the same personalities but you’ve got to respect the person you’re playing with or even battling against.
I could have been selfish but I decided not to be that way. It’s probably worked against me at times but it’s just the person I am. I have always been a person that wants everybody to be happy and feel good and I have to feel good about every decision I make. My parents raised me that way to always be nice to people. I treat people like I want them to treat me and I think that’s a pretty good way to live.
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan