Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson gradually rose up the draft rankings this year as his play got better and better. He’s risen so high in fact that it would not be shocking if he were the second European taken, behind countryman Victor Hedman.
Twenty-nine-year-old Canadian center Kevin Doell, a veteran of eight NHL games, played with Ekman-Larsson with Leksand in the Allsvenskan this past season.
"He has improved a ton in just the time I was with him in Leksand," Doell said. "He’s a great skater with very good hands and makes smart plays with the puck. He has a lot of potential, but probably the most impressive thing about his game is his patience and calmness when he has the puck. He sometimes makes things look effortless. It’s really impressive to see how calm and mature he looks on the ice. You forget he’s only 17 years old."
The 6’2, 176-pound blueliner posted three goals and 14 assists in 39 games in the Allsvenskan, the top farm league in Sweden. It was the most points by anyone his age. Ekman-Larsson won’t turn 18 until July 17.
"He has had great development this year," U18 Team Sweden coach Stephan Lundh said. "I don’t see many weaknesses. The only thing is that he needs to get stronger I think. I think he will go very high in the draft."
Some bring up a need to improve his defensive play as well, but Lundh didn’t see it as a concern.
"I think he has more offensive skills, but I think he’s doing alright," Lundh said. "I saw him a lot this year with the senior players. When he played with the seniors, he played very mature and did OK in the defensive zone. In our team (U18), he has a bigger role. But he’s able to do both."
And the numbers probably don’t lie either. Ekman-Larsson had the best plus/minus in the league at +44, and did it as a rookie and one of the youngest players.
Asked if he was surprised by his plus/minus accomplishment, Ekman-Larsson said "yeah. Absolutely." And he shared the credit for it. "I had a good team and my defensive partner (Jan Huokko) is good." Huokko was also twice his age at 34.
"We have to get Oliver to use it a lot more because he likes the fancy thing," Lundh said during the U18 tournament.
Playing on the smaller North American rink was not an issue for the good-skating blueliner with long reach though.
"I like it," Ekman-Larsson said. "It’s hard, but I like it." A defenseman has less time "so you’re playing very quick."
But despite the differences in rink size, Ekman-Larsson said he was playing the same way as he did at home and was not asked to make changes to his game. He was solid, not flashy, and only rarely attempted to go end to end. Most of the time he seemed to be expertly running the power play.
Ekman-Larsson suffered a minor foot injury late in the tournament that limited his ice time, but he says it is all healed now. Even with the injury, he posted two goals and six assists in the six games.
He played with defenseman Simon Bertilsson on the top unit, which Ekman-Larsson said he enjoyed. The two are good friends off the ice, and roomed together at the tournament. They’ve played together on the national team for five years. Ekman-Larsson is the more offensive, and Bertilsson the more defensive of the two.
Ekman-Larsson isn’t a big talker, but is well-liked within his circle.
"He is a great teammate," Doell said. "He has a good head on his shoulders and really gets along with everyone. Also, he doesn’t complain ever and is very coachable which I think is key for him to learn the North American style of game. I was able to hang around with him and a couple of the other guys quite a bit and all I can say is he is a great person."
Doell feels that Ekman-Larsson would do fine in North America when he eventually makes the move over.
"He’ll do whatever he has to, to make things work," Doell said. "He was put into a number of different roles with our team this year and he always adjusted his game according to the situation. So I think he will do fine in the smaller rinks.
"It’s definitely a different game over there. We had a very good offensive team and we scored quite a few goals but when Oliver was asked to play against other teams’ top lines, he did it well. He led the league in plus/minus and I think was only on the ice for fewer than 10 goals against all year. That’s a pretty impressive stat, especially for a 17-year-old. He does have quite a bit of skill and I saw that at the end of the year when our top d-man was injured and Oliver took over as the top guy on the power play."
Asked to self-assess what he still needs to work on, the thin Ekman-Larsson said "my physique must be better. My skills with handling the puck."
And despite that best plus/minus, Ekman-Larsson also named his defensive play as something he’s working on.
But like most players his age, his weight is top priority over the summer. To that end, he said he plans to work out hard with the trainers at Leksand. He will attend the NHL combine in late May, where his body and mind will be measured along with 100 other draft hopefuls.
Ekman-Larsson said he had already talked to five NHL teams, among them the Atlanta Thrashers, the NY Islanders, the Nashville Predators, and the LA Kings. He had not talked to Ottawa, Detroit or Vancouver, but took it in stride. The Vancouver Canucks are known to like their Swedes. "I know, but not me," Ekman-Larsson said laughing.
Three of those four teams that interviewed him early have picks in the top five slots. It only takes one team of course, and the Thrashers, who hold the No. 4 pick, remain interested.
ISS has Ekman-Larsson ranked ninth overall (April rankings), and Central Scouting has him fourth among European skaters (final rankings).
Another thing Ekman-Larsson will be working on to prepare for the combine in one month’s time is his English. He and his buddy Bertilsson might even practice together. Ekman-Larsson laughed and said "we need it."