Oliver Ekman-Larsson

No longer underrated, Ekman-Larsson looks to lead in Arizona

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By now you should all know about Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

When the Coyotes reached the Western Conference Final in 2012, Ekman-Larsson wowed fans who hadn’t had much of a chance to see him play with his ability to carry the puck and generate offense from the blue line. His ability to play strong in all three zones had many believing they were watching a future Norris Trophy winner.

Two years since then, the Coyotes have fallen out of the playoff picture but Ekman-Larsson’s play hasn’t fallen off. If anything, the 23-year-old is leading by example.

Over the past two seasons, Ekman-Larsson has averaged over 25 minutes of ice time per game. Last season he played nearly 26 minutes per game and the ice time paid off as he had career-highs in goals (15) and points (44). His point total was second to Keith Yandle on the team defense and 14th best amongst defensemen in the NHL. Of the players ahead of him on the NHL list, only Erik Karlsson and Shea Weber saw more ice time.

While Yandle carried a bit more of the offensive load, Ekman-Larsson is taking care of business strongly at both ends of the ice. He’s also a major threat on the power play as 22 of his 44 points last season came with the man-advantage including eight goals.

When you check out Ekman-Larsson’s possession stats (courtesy Extra Skater), his game is strong.

In his first three seasons he had positive numbers that ranked him out amongst the best on the team. While his possession numbers fell off last season, the punch he and Keith Yandle provided offensively helped keep the Coyotes in the hunt for the playoffs all year.

As he enters his fifth season, Ekman-Larsson has all the hype and the skills to back it up. Now it’s his time to break through and enter the pantheon of other elite, young defensemen.

Poll: Will the Leafs have a captain this year?

Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock stands on the bench during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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There are six teams currently without a captain — Carolina, Edmonton, Florida, Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto — and of the six, it’s the latter that seems furthest from filling the role.

Back in April, head coach Mike Babcock said he didn’t expect the Leafs to have a captain this season. That news hardly came as a surprise — Toronto had just wrapped a difficult first year of what figures to be a lengthy rebuild, and didn’t seem to have any leading candidates to inherit the “C” from Dion Phaneuf, who was traded to Ottawa in February.

Of course, things have changed since then.

The biggest, by far, was Toronto landing phenom Auston Matthew with the first overall pick at the draft. GM Lou Lamoriello also locked in two of the club’s better young players — Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly — to matching six-year deals, and added a physical veteran presence in free agency by signing former Islander Matt Martin.

All of this makes for a different dynamic in the dressing room, but will it impact the captaincy?

Hard to say.

At first glance, the Leafs still seem to lack a leading candidate, at least for the present. If Lamoriello and team president Brendan Shanahan wanted to go the veteran route, they could anoint Brooks Laich or Matt Hunwick as a placeholder, though neither projects to play a significant role on the team beyond this year and into the future.

Rielly could be the guy but, at 22, he’d be awfully young.

The same can be said of Matthews, though many do expect him to eventually captain the Leafs. But asking him to shoulder that responsibility now — as an 18-year-old rookie — would be the most anti-Lamoriello move of all time, so you can rule that out.

Anyway, here’s how this will work. The poll will be a straight yes-no and, if you vote yes, put your pick for captain in the comments section.

Welcome back: Flames sign Higgins to camp PTO

Chris Higgins
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Chris Higgins is back in Cowtown.

On Tuesday, the Flames announced that Higgins would be attending training camp on a professional tryout, bringing him back to the organization he played part of the 2009-10 campaign with.

Higgins, 33, had spent the last six years in Vancouver. His stint with the Canucks included some quality highs — a trip to the ’11 Stanley Cup Final, and an 18-goal, 43-point season the year following — but ended on a sour note last spring when, after GM Jim Benning failed to orchestrate a trade, Higgins was placed on waivers and spent time in AHL Utica.

All told, Higgins finished the campaign with three goals and four points in 33 contests.

In June, the Canucks bought out the last of his four-year, $10 million deal.

Higgins has played in Calgary before — as mentioned above — but that’s not his only connection to the organization. The Flames’ new head coach, Glen Gulutzan, was the assistant in Vancouver for the last three years and worked closely with Higgins (who had a good season in Gulutzan’s first year with the Canucks, scoring 17 goals and 39 points).

 

 

Under Pressure: Auston Matthews

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: (l-r) Lou Lamoriello and  Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs attend round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

It’s the collective, really.

There’s no single reason why Auston Matthews was our clear cut choice for today’s “Under Pressure” post.

No single reason, because there are so many reasons.

There was the pre-draft hype, which was off the charts. There was Toronto tanking to get the No. 1 overall pick — or, as team president Brendan Shanahan put it, earning the pick “the hard way.”

There were the names, too.

Matthews is now linked to Patrick Kane, after becoming the first American to go No. 1 overall since Chicago took Kane nine years ago. Matthew is also now forever linked to Leafs legend Wendel Clark — Toronto’s last No. 1 overall pick, taken all the way back in 1985.

Then, there’s his pedigree.

And with that pedigree comes privilege.

Before he ever played a second of NHL hockey, Matthews was named to Team North America for the World Cup of Hockey — ahead of the likes of Max Domi, Boone Jenner and Alex Galchenyuk, the latter a 30-goal scorer and already a veteran of nearly 300 NHL contests.

Pundits have already slotted Matthews into a top-two center role in Toronto, one that will come with all the requisite power play time befitting a special offensive talent. As a result, expectations for this year are sky high. A recent NHL.com projection said the 60-point plateau should be within reach, and think pieces about how other rookies won’t just concede the Calder.

Smartly, but perhaps futilely, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello is trying to shield Matthew from some of pressure that comes along with being, y’know, the savior of a team in one of the league’s most storied markets.

“I don’t think there’s any player that’s going to be the face of this franchise,” Lamoriello said at the draft, when asked if Matthews would be exactly that. “The logo will be the face of the franchise.”

Lamoriello went on to say that when “you’re taking an 18-year-old and expect him to do wonders, it’s not fair.”

No, it’s not fair.

But it is the reality.

Looking to make the leap: Nikita Zaitsev

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev #2 of Russia dumps the puck in as forward Cody Eakin #21 of Canada tries to block the puck during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship Group B game between Canada and Russia on December 26, 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Toronto Maple Leafs day at PHT…

“I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The physical part of the game will be different for him in the NHL, but the way he moves the puck and skates and how defensive you now have to be to play, it just really makes you think he can be really successful for the Leafs.”

That quote was from former NHL defenseman Ryan Whitney, speaking in May about newly minted Toronto defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who went up against Whitney in the KHL.

So needless to say, expectations for Zaitsev this season are fairly high.

And they’re high for reason. At 24, the undrafted blueliner has a wealth of professional experience — seven full campaigns, split between Novosibirsk and CSKA Moscow — and really came into his own over the last few years. He routinely led CSKA in d-man scoring, and was named a KHL first-team all-star in ’14-15.

That pedigree should translate into plenty of opportunities in Toronto.

And hey, Toronto has plenty of opportunities to offer.

It’s likely one of the big reasons Zaitsev chose the Leafs over other interested suitors like Calgary, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (per Sportsnet). The Leafs are still in the early stages of their rebuild, and it shows on defense — based on current projections, Zaitsev could open as a top-four guy alongside Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick, leapfrogging the likes of Martin Maricin, Roman Polak and Connor Carrick in the process.

The great unknown, of course, is how his success in the KHL will translate into North America. Every NHL club is hoping to land the next Artemi Panarin, but it’s important to remember that 1) Panarin is a forward, and 2) jumped onto a line next to Patrick Kane.

The transition for defenders has generally been tougher, something folks in Philly saw last year with the failed Evgeny Medvedev experience.

Of course, Zaitsev has a few more things going for him than his fellow Russian. He’s younger than Medvedev by nearly a decade, and is a coveted right-handed shot (Medvedev’s a lefty).

And like most players coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev’s on a one-year, performance bonus-laden contract that amounts to a “prove it” deal in the NHL.

That should be enough motivation to help him make the leap.

And if it’s not, there’s always the leap back to Russia.