Maple Leafs Will Eventually Nneed Defenceman of Ekman-Larsson’s ilk
TORONTO — Imagine for a moment you had access to Lou Lamoriello’s hockey thoughts.
Weird ask, I know. Just do it.
What do you think would emerge as important? What is of particular interest to the Maple Leafs general manager these days?
Leaping over the obvious answer (winning a Stanley Cup), it would be safe to bet that acquiring a No. 1 defenceman ranks highly on Lamoriello’s frequent thoughts chart.
The Leafs roster is still under construction. There are holes at every position. Most glaringly, though, the roster lacks a true No. 1 blueliner — to be fair, Toronto is not the only team with this problem — and it doesn’t appear the Leafs’ pipeline is prepared to shoot out a blue-chip prospect anytime soon.
Which brings us to Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who scored a power-play goal Thursday night in the Coyotes’ 3-2 shootout win over the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. He’s exactly the kind of player Lamoriello will look to add in the not-too-distant future,.
When the Leafs’ core hits its peak, Morgan Rielly probably will slot in at No. 2. Nikita Zaitsev, while deployed this season in a first-pairing role, is likely a No. 3 ‘D’ on a contending team.
Three others approaching the typical prime years for a defenceman — Jake Gardiner, 26, Connor Carrick, 22, and Martin Marincin, 24 — hypothetically gobble up the No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 spots to round out a six-man unit.
So, back to the man they call OEL.
Ekman-Larsson, one of many excellent Swedish rearguards scattered across the NHL, consistently contributes at a level the current Leafs can’t seem to reach. He’s a valuable piece, a difference maker, at even-strength and on both special teams.
A 25-year-old who at times carries the Coyotes on his shoulders, Ekman-Larsson will not necessarily wow you with his raw offensive totals (six goals and nine assists in 30 games). But he is good for a cool 40-55 points per season.
Dependability is Ekman-Larsson’s calling card, plain and simple, and it’s that trait which elevates him from Morgan Rielly territory to the rarefied air of the true No. 1 defenceman.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder can hold his own against the league’s finest offensive players, regularly battling stiff competition alongside a subpar partner in crime (see: Luke Schenn). He’s a horse.
Ekman-Larsson is efficient, too. Using an active stick and smart positioning, he plays an energy-conserving style borrowed from Swedish legend Nicklas Lidstrom. This helps skate 25-30 minutes per night.
He’s not the total package, not a Top 5 defenceman in the world, but he’s definitely in the second tier.
OEL’s under contract with Arizona for this season and two more, so the Leafs would have to wait for 2019 free agency or, in the meantime, convince Coyotes GM John Chayka to trade a cornerstone defender.
But, I must stress, this is not about Ekman-Larsson as an individual player. Acquiring a defenceman of his ilk — that’s the point.
OEL represents the hockey thoughts Lamoriello should be, and probably already is, filling his head with.
The two sides of Gardiner were on full display at the tail end of the first period on Thursday. The bad side: He dropped the puck to no one in particular, donating a long shorthanded breakaway to Tobias Rieder of the Coyotes. Yep, typical Gardiner. Fortunately for the Leafs, Rieder missed. About a minute later, the good came out to play, as Gardiner redeemed himself by drawing a penalty deep in the Coyotes’ zone. The Leafs scored on that power play and Gardiner picked up an assist. Yep, typical Gardiner … Twenty-nine games into his NHL career and I’m 100% sold: Mitch Marner has earned a spot on my Players Who Make You Stop Doing What You’re Doing list … Marner, one of three players on the ice who were eligible for Canada’s world junior team, skated for 20 minutes, recording a goal on two shots. He looked dangerous all night. The other two, Lawson Crouse and Jakob Chychrun, didn’t make big splashes for the visiting team. Statistical highlights include Crouse’s six hits in 12 minutes and Chychrun’s blocked shot in 15 minutes … Ben Smith, goon? Toronto’s fourth-line centre has taken his two only penalties of the season in the last two games.
OFF THE GLASS AND OUT
So, 40-year-old Shane Doan, how does it feel to face off against Auston Matthews, the 19-year-old Arizonan who granted you idol status back in the day? “It makes you feel a little old when you realize when you started someone who was just starting to pick up the game and now you get to play against him,” the longtime Coyotes captain said after the morning skate. “It’s a big thing for the whole organization to have somebody of his stature in the league, and to have the opportunity to play against him, it will be talked about back in Phoenix. It’s exciting.” … Going into Thursday’s full slate of games, 45 NHLers had bagged 10 or more goals. The Leafs, along with four other clubs, have a three-pack of these snipers (Matthews, 14 goals; James van Riemsdyk, 12; and Nazem Kadri, 10). The Rangers are the lone team with four double-digit scorers, while the Coyotes, with eight-goal Radim Vrbata as its leading scorer, sit at the other end of the spectrum.