After long path led him to Panthers, Oliver Ekman-Larsson cherishing ‘unreal’ playoff run

Bill Zito didn’t need to give Oliver Ekman-Larsson much of a pitch when he approached the veteran defenseman this offseason about signing with the Florida Panthers.

“We’ve got a hockey team down here. Come play,” Zito, the Panthers’ president of hockey operations and general manager, recollected after practice Monday about his conversation with Ekman-Larsson. “Just come play. What do you need? Show up. Play. Have fun.”

Ekman-Larsson certainly is having fun, a lot more than he has the past couple years when injuries hampered his production. He has been a steady presence on Florida’s blue line and is getting rewarded for it by being a critical player for the Panthers on their deep playoff run, which continues Wednesday when they begin the Eastern Conference final at 8 p.m. Wednesday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

This is Ekman-Larsson’s first time in the postseason since the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs and just second time playing beyond the first round. He was with the Phoenix Coyotes during their 2012 run to the Western Conference final. That was a dozen years ago.

After the long layoff from the postseason, he’s not taking this run for granted.

“It’s been unreal,” said Ekman-Larsson, a 14-year NHL veteran. “Being in the playoffs and having a chance to win it, I think that’s something very special and that’s why I wanted to come here.”

Ekman-Larsson’s journey to the Panthers didn’t come without a chip on his shoulder. A twice-injured left foot hindering his chance to be as productive as he was during the early stages of his career with the Coyotes. The Canucks, as a result, bought out his contract following the 2022-23 season and made him a free agent.

The Panthers, needing defenseman depth to start the season, signed Ekman-Larrson to a minimal deal, but his contributions have been anything but minimal.

He played on Florida’s top defense pairing with Gustav Forsling for the first 16 games of the season while Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour recovered from offseason shoulder surgery and had no problem dropping down to the third pairing when the duo returned. Florida’s third pairing is now Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov, who have a combined 1,930 games of experience between them.

Overall, Ekman-Larsson scored nine goals and had 32 points — the most in a season for him since the 2018-19 campaign.

Since the playoffs began, the Panthers are controlling 59.92 percent of shot attempts when Ekman-Larsson is on the ice at full strength, which is the best mark in the NHL among players on teams still in the playoffs. This includes a 64-44 edge in shots on goal and 63-36 edge in scoring chances.

For Ekman-Larsson, it’s a gratifying feeling considering how the few years prior unfolded.

“I think everybody has kind of gone through a tough path, if you can call it that,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I mean, it’s a fast game. Injuries are gonna happen. Unfortunately, I had two pretty tight there. I just worked really hard this summer. I’ve been saying it before, but I have that belief in myself that I’m still a good player in this league and can play the way that I’ve played pretty much my whole career. I feel good, and obviously the guys have been helping me out this year, too. Coming into a tight group that accepted me right away and made me feel at home, that helps, too, so give the guys a lot of credit. We’ve just been a really good team. Winning helps to get that confidence back.”

Added Zito: “He’s a damn good hockey player, to start with. He’s blossomed in that environment. He’s a pro. He takes care of business. Just come play and have fun. That’s what he’s done. He’s one of those guys who in different parts of different days certainly has an element of leadership and experience that he brings. He’s very much appreciated.”

The reward: A playoff run that has no sign of stopping any time soon. The Panthers won their opening-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games and dispatched the Boston Bruins in the second round to reach the Eastern Conference final for a second consecutive season.

They’re four wins away from a return to the Stanley Cup Finals.

“Playoff hockey is much more fun, it’s much more intense and it’s the payoff after a good year,” coach Paul Maurice said. “For a player who had the injuries that he did that he couldn’t play the game the way he wanted to play to be able to come back and be such an important part is great for him.”

It’s something Ekman-Larsson is treasuring.

“I think I’ve talked about it so many times over the course of the year, but it’s a special group that we have here and it seems like what they went through last year [advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals] kind of helped us this season,” Ekman-Larsson said, “so I’m just trying to watch and learn and then trying to play my game and pick up on the stuff that Sasha Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk, Aaron Ekblad, and Gus Forsling and all of those guys that are driving the bus here are doing.”