Oliver Ekman-Larsson highlights Phoenix Coyotes class of 2009

By Pat Paeplow

Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Phoenix Coyotes

Photo: Selected sixth overall in 2009, Oliver Ekman-Larsson has developed into a top-pairing defenseman and ice-time leader for the Coyotes (courtesy of Derik Hamilton/Icon SMI)

The Phoenix Coyotes changed in the 2009 offseason. Before, they were a mediocre, punch line of a club that could always be found toward the bottom of the standings. After, they were playoff fixtures, culminating in a deep run to the Western Conference Finals in 2011-12.

After missing the postseason six years in a row, the Coyotes limped into the 2009 NHL Draft bogged down in turmoil. Along with their inability to compete on the ice, their viability as a business had come under the microscope. In March, then-owner Jerry Moyes had put the franchise into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. This raised serious questions about the sustainability of Phoenix as a hockey market, questions which persist to this day. Wayne Gretzky, who had presided as head coach and head of hockey operations, departed amidst the financial chaos. It was arguably the darkest period in the history of the Phoenix Coyotes.

At the time, The Great One’s resignation looked like the beginning of the end for hockey in the desert. In retrospect, his subtraction was what precipitated the Coyotes turnaround on the ice. With Gretzky out of the way, Don Maloney had complete control of the franchise for the first time during his tenure in Phoenix. He would hire Dave Tippett as Head Coach. Together, they would transform the Coyotes into a responsible, system-based club whose gritty defensive layers grind other teams into submission.

At the draft in Montreal, Maloney drafted Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Ekman-Larsson’s selection alone makes the 2009 draft an unquestionable success. However, this was also the draft where Maloney introduced his trend of acquiring big, physical forwards with some hint of a scoring upside. In subsequent drafts as well as free agency, the franchise has amassed a stockpile of these types of forwards. The Coyotes draw their team identity from these players.

Ultimately, Maloney drafted six players in Montreal. On draft day, he sent his seventh round selection to Vancouver for Shaun Heshka. He also acquired the Islanders third round selection in exchange for the Coyotes third round choice in 2010. In previous transactions, Phoenix had acquired a fourth round selection from Florida and dealt away their positions in the third and fourth rounds to other clubs.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D, Leksands IF (Allsvenskan) – 1st round, 6th overall
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games Played: 226

Ekman-Larsson is already one of the twenty best defensemen in the world. If he continues along his current development arc, he will be an annual Norris contender. He was widely regarded as the best defenseman available when Phoenix went on the clock for the sixth overall selection.

Ekman-Larsson is one of the best skaters of his generation with refined risk and reward instincts. These qualities combine, enabling him to create space and generate scoring opportunities from the back end without getting caught up ice or habitually turning the puck over, costly mistakes which neutralize the effectiveness of many puck-moving defensemen.

Following the draft, Ekman-Larsson turned in another solid season with his European club, Leksands IF. That season, he also represented Sweden in both the 2010 World Junior Championships and the Men’s 2010 World Championships. In 2010-11, he made the jump to North America where he promptly tore up the AHL and earned a promotion to Phoenix that season. 2011-12 was his first full season in the NHL. This season, Ekman-Larsson is established as a fixture on the Coyotes top defensive pairing and quarterbacks the first wave of the power play. Against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he suffered an upper body injury because of a dangerous hit from Derek MacKenzie, but now coming off a career-high 32:52 of ice time on January 22nd in Calgary, he appears to be fully recovered and ready to represent Sweden at the Olympics in Sochi.

Chris Brown, LW, USNTDP – 2nd round, 36th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 11

Maloney drafted Brown out of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Playing amongst the best American junior players, Brown accentuated his big frame and tenacious style with a scoring touch. He was the first of Maloney’s big power forwards.

Following his draft year, Brown enrolled at the University of Michigan. Although he never dominated in the NCAA, his physicality stood out. He developed as a net front presence, generating scoring opportunities from below the goal line. In 2012-13, Brown made the jump to the AHL. Most forwards’ scoring production drops on arrival to professional hockey. There are rare players that benefit from the AHL’s higher tolerance for physical play. Brown was one of them. He scored 29 goals for Portland, producing at a higher rate than he did in college. His rookie season was impressive enough that he earned call up to Phoenix for five games.

Brown remains on the verge of the NHL this season, taxiing between Portland and Phoenix throughout the first half. He has a diverse skillset, meaning he can be deployed in many different situations; useful on a scoring, shutdown or even an energy line. This should help him crack the NHL once and for all since he will be able to capitalize on almost any roster spot that opens up.

Mike Lee, G, Fargo Force (USHL) – 3rd round, 91st overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

Mike Lee may be playing out his last days as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes organization. Lee, selected with a pick acquired from the New York Islanders, was coming off a strong season headed into his draft year. He was a USHL All-Star with the Fargo Force and one of the best young goaltenders in the world when he represented the United States at the U18 Championships.

Following his draft year, Lee spent three seasons at St. Cloud State where his play progressively improved despite finding himself in a shooting gallery on many nights playing behind an inconsistent Huskies lineup. His final season in 2011-12 was hampered by a hip injury. In his professional debut in 2012-13, he played strong in net for the Gwinnett Gladiators in the ECHL. He earned himself a call-up to Portland in the AHL where he continued to play effectively. This season in Portland, his goaltending early on was inconsistent because of injuries. Louis Domingue was called up and outplayed him. Lee has not responded.

Lee is a solid technical goaltender. However, two talented prospects, Brendan Burke and Marek Langhamer, are poised to make the jump into professional hockey in 2014-15. With Mark Visentin’s credentials established and assuming Domingue’s solid play persists, Lee could be the goaltender squeezed out of next year’s depth chart. If he continues crack up, it is not likely Maloney would do much to keep him around.

Jordan Szwarz, RW, Saginaw Spirit (OHL) – 4th round, 97th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 26

Szwarz is another member of Maloney’s inaugural class of big, gritty forwards. He registered close to a point per game with the Saginaw Spirit in the OHL but his marketability as an NHL hockey player at the 2009 draft was most certainly as a grinder who always made conscientious decisions, a winger who could excel in a third or fourth line role.

Following his draft year, Szwarz churned out two more exceptional OHL seasons with Saginaw, capping off his CHL career with an impressive playoff run, scoring 13 points in 12 games. In 2011-12 he endured the tough transition into the AHL. In Portland, his scoring touch dried up but, as anticipated, he found other ways to contribute. Szwarz honed himself into an effective penalty killer and his sense of responsibility made him one of the most reliable forwards on the Pirates roster in defensive zone situations. Despite missing time with a recurring shoulder injury, Szwarz was named assistant captain of the Pirates in 2012-13.

The Pirates promoted Szwarz to captain coming out of training camp this year but, almost immediately, he was called up to Phoenix. There, he found a home on Dave Tippett’s fourth line through the first quarter of the NHL season. Over the last couple months, Szwarz has found himself bounced up and down between Portland and Phoenix. Still, he has acquired a foothold on an NHL roster. As long as his game does not soften and his body can endure the style of play that led to his promotion, Szwarz should be able to establish himself as an NHL regular.

Justin Weller, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL) – 4th round, 105th overall
Status: Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

When Weller played for the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL, he was never a standout defenseman. He did have a big frame and obvious skating ability. Maloney had acquired this fourth round choice from Florida and probably thought it was a good place in the draft to take a gamble, hoping Weller would grow into that frame, learn to effectively employ his skating ability and develop into a solid bottom-pairing role player in the NHL. It never happened.

Weller stuck around Red Deer for three more seasons following his draft year. He improved in 2010-11, showing flashes of solid lockdown play throughout the season. However, the Rebels were one of the most talented teams in the CHL that season. His effectiveness could easily have been a by-product of being sheltered by teammates like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM) and Matt Dumba (MIN).

Weller was assigned to Gwinnett starting in 2012-13. He has turned in some good stretches of hockey but, overall, his play has been inconsistent and nothing about his skillset suggests he would be an effective defenseman against competition beyond the ECHL.

Although it is alarming that Weller could not even stick in the AHL, it is difficult to second-guess Maloney over this pick. Busts become very common around the fourth round of the draft. In 2009, Ben Chiarot is the only defender remaining from that range of the draft with a reasonable shot at becoming an NHL regular.

Evan Bloodoff, LW, Kelowna Rockets (WHL) – 6th round, 157th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Bloodoff was a forward who loosely fit Maloney’s preference for grit and scoring punch. He was coming off a solid season for the Kelowna Rockets, playing a vital role in their run to the WHL championship and an appearance in the Memorial Cup. Bloodoff’s ability to raise his compete level in clutch situations might have been what tipped the scales and convinced Maloney to draft him over other similar forwards available like Jerry D’Amigo (TOR) or Scott Timmins (NJD).

Bloodoff ran into some bad luck following his draft year. He blew out his ACL and essentially missed all of 2009-10. He rebounded the following season, scoring 22 goals. Still, this was not nearly enough production at the CHL level to convince Maloney to sign him to an entry-level contract. As an unrestricted free agent, he was signed to minor league deals first with Portland then with Gwinnett in the ECHL. He has shown an ability to generate offense playing for the Gladiators. He has just never stood out in his AHL appearances on the score sheet or otherwise.