COMMENTARY | The following conversation between two casual hockey fans was recently overheard around a workplace water cooler in an NHL city that isn't Phoenix:
Casual fan #1: Last night I decided to check out an archived game through my NHL cable package. Man, I saw this awesome Swedish defenseman. He was a great two-way player who moved the puck well and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He was smooth on his skates, great with his stick, and he rarely made mistakes. He was strong on both the power play and penalty kill, and he was a scoring threat as much as he was a defensive stopper.
This conversation didn't actually take place, but it could have.
Unless they play fantasy hockey, casual hockey fans outside of Arizona may not yet be familiar with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. When they think of the Phoenix Coyotes, forward Shane Doan likely comes to mind, or even goaltender Mike Smith.
By the end of this season, however, that is going to change. Ekman-Larsson is poised to take the next step and firmly place himself among the NHL's elite defensemen, and open eyes around the league in the process.
A Fair Comparison
Comparisons between young athletes and past legends are often said to be unfair to the young athlete, and maybe they are. But if he walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and plays hockey like a duck, people may occasionally feel compelled to compare him to said duck. This is especially true when the duck he's being compared to is arguably the greatest defenseman in the history of Earth.
As our hypothetical casual fan noted above, Ekman-Larsson is a smooth skater who is great with his stick. So was Lidstrom. He consistently puts himself in the best defensive position to make a play. So did Lidstrom. He is a good two-way, puck-moving defenseman who knows how to find the back of the net. So was Lidstrom. It is hard to deny the uncanny on-ice resemblance between the two players.
It isn't unfair when the guy you compare to a hockey legend actually looks a lot like the hockey legend.
Making the leap
Comparisons aside, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is ready to make the leap to the upper echelon of NHL defensemen where he will be recognized for his greatness beyond the market he plays in.
He has made strides each season, with his performance in last year's shortened season being his most productive yet. In 48 games he had three goals and 24 points with a plus/minus of five. He was recognized for his solid play, finishing seventh in the vote for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.
Several of the players with him or above him on the final Norris ballot are already household names around the NHL. Names like Suter, Letang, Chara, and Weber are established stars at the position. This year Oliver Ekman-Larsson will join them, and will likely finish above many of them on the ballot for the 2014 Norris Trophy.
Ekman-Larsson is on pace to easily surpass last season's accomplishments. He is tied for fourth in the league in scoring among defensemen with 11 points after 15 games, equaling last season's goal total while posting a plus/minus of seven. He is also rising to the occasion in the clutch, as he is tied for the lead among defensemen with two game-winning goals.
If he continues to perform the way he has, he will have more than 16 goals and 60 points through 82 games. That is Lidstromesque, and it would probably make him a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
There's still room to grow
A scouting report by The Hockey News lists two flaws in Ekman-Larsson's game: a lack of bulk and a reluctance to take slap shots from the point.
He's 22 years old. These "flaws" will evaporate sooner rather than later, and when they do it will be difficult to find weaknesses in his game. He will grow. He will mature. He will become a better version of the hockey player he is now, and the hockey player he is now is pretty good.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson may not be Nicklas Lidstrom, but he sure looks a lot like him, and before long everyone is going to know it.
Scott DeWaelsche is a lifelong hockey fan from Phoenix, Arizona. He covers the Phoenix Coyotes as a Yahoo contributor.
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