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Ekman-Larsson poised to lead Coyotes

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson knew the desert was where he wanted to stay, yet consulted with former Coyotes captain Shane Doan before signing a long-term extension.


Doan had been in similar situations before, debating whether to stay in the only place he had ever played or head off someplace else for more money or a better chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

Doan kept true to the Coyotes throughout his career, spending his entire 21-year career with the same franchise, yet didn't try to sway his former teammate one way or another during a 20-minute call.

''I just asked how he looked at when he was playing, so that helped me a lot,'' Ekman-Larsson said. ''It was really nice to have a guy who had been in the same situation a little bit. He didn't say what I was going to do. You should just do what's best for you and what you're feeling comfortable with. After that phone call, it felt great to agree on the long term.''

The long term was an eight-year contract extension signed last week that will pay Ekman-Larsson an average of $8.25 million per year. The 26-year-old Swede may have been able to command more money on the open market when his current contract expires after the 2018-19 season, but dollar signs were not what he was after.

Stability, comfortable surroundings and a hope for the future was what Ekman-Larsson sought. The Coyotes are the only team he's played for and they have a roster filled with up-and-coming players, so it was the only natural fit in his mind.

''It's only money. It's not going to make you happier, so the money situation was never a problem,'' Ekman-Larsson said. ''I didn't even think about it. I'm just happy to be a part of this team and this community and the future.''

Since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Coyotes have regressed, becoming one of the NHL's worst teams. They've been in rebuilding mode since that run but appear to be on the road to becoming a playoff-contending team again with a slew of moves and draft picks by general manager John Chayka.

Locking up Ekman-Larsson for the long term keeps a key, veteran piece to the puzzle in place, providing the Coyotes with leadership and rarely matched skill from the blue line.

''It's a huge moment for our entire organization. Our fans should be proud, our ownership should be proud, our staff and everyone involved,'' Chayka said after Ekman-Larsson's signing. ''A superstar-caliber player has the option to go to maybe any of the 31 teams and felt the loyalty and felt the belief enough in what we're doing to sign on long term. He's a leader on and off the ice and a special person, a special player.''

Since being taken with the sixth overall pick of the 2009 NHL draft, Ekman-Larsson has established himself as one of the NHL's most skilled defensemen. He has eclipsed 20 goals twice during eight NHL seasons and is annually among the league leaders in assists by a defenseman, finishing with at least 19 each of the past seven seasons.

Ekman-Larsson got the 2017-18 season off to a slow start, with eight goals and 22 assists the first four months while posting the league's worst plus/minus rating.

The start came with extenuating circumstances.

Not only was he playing in a new system for a new coach in Rick Tocchet, Ekman-Larsson was still trying to come to grips with the death of his mother, Annika. She battled cancer for 10 years before succumbing and he missed the final three games of the 2016-17 season to be with his family. The weight of her death carried into the start of the 2017-18 season.

''Obviously, losing your mom is something I will have to live with the rest of my life,'' he said. ''It's not going to take one year, it's not going to take 10 years, it's something I'm going to have with me until I die. There's days that you feel better about it and there's days where you're feeling sad about it, so it's up and down a little bit. It's OK to be that way, but at the same time it helps to do what I love doing, being around my teammates and great people. That's something I really appreciate.''

Ekman-Larsson played better at the end of last season as he understood Tocchet's system more, finishing with 14 goals and 28 assists while playing all 82 games. He expects the comfort level to increase for the upcoming season - and beyond, now that he has a long-term contract in place.


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