AHL road trip: Oliver Ekman-Larsson the Maine attraction
ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
|Coyotes defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will start the season with the Portland Pirates. (CHRIS ROY photo)
PORTLAND, MAINE - The opportunity missed is not lost on Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett.
Here at a small arena on the rainy Maine coast, Tippett is watching Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a young defenceman he gave 30 minutes ice time or more several nights during the most recent Stanley Cup playoffs.
He’s impossible to miss — smooth skating, sharp positionally and playing in this intra-squad scrimmage with the poise that put him among the list of bright young blueliners in hockey.
With a trip to the Western Conference final, the Coyotes had a chance to build some momentum in the NHL market that could need it most. But locked-out Ekman-Larsson, like the rest of those eligible to play on NHL rosters, will instead start his season with the ‘Yotes’ top farm team, the Portland Pirates.
The majority of the Coyotes will be idle and a golden chance to hook the fan base in the Arizona desert is gone with it.
“We want to continue to build an organization, not just that can win, but can be a stable, good franchise,” Tippett said in an interview here following a spirited scrimmage between would-be Coyotes and Pirates. “If we do our part on the ice, we hope the off-ice stuff takes care of itself.
“From (general manager) Don Maloney on down, our staff has worked very hard to get us to this place where you can come to a practice like this and look out on the ice and see we are moving in the right direction.”
For franchises like Phoenix and even the Los Angeles Kings, which is denied — for now — the chance to capitalize on the marketing value of a Stanley Cup victory, the lockout is as frustrating as it is fruitless.
While there seems to be some optimism coming out of the Valley of the Sun that latest Coyote ownership suitor, Greg Jamison, may finally take the club off of the NHL’s hands, all around the team have seen this act before. Until a deal is done, that important step in the battle to survive in one of the NHL’s most difficult markets is a brutal one.
But the minor-league show must go on and in Ekman-Larsson, the Pirates have a defenceman that Tippett believes can be among the elite in the league. But his skill on the ice has been matched by his enthusiasm here in Portland where he seems committed to assuming a leadership role.
“It shows a ton about him,” Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving said. “This is where he wants to be. He wants to play and he wants to lead by example.
“This is his peer group and all these other guys no what kind of a player he is, they saw what he did in the playoffs. The attitude is one thing, but they watch the work he puts in and practice and that brings a whole lot of juice to the room. Not only is this guy a great player, but he’s first on, last off. He’s a natural player to follow.”
For a 21-year-old, that attitude may be rare. Selected sixth overall by the Coyotes in the 2009 entry draft, the native of Karlskrona, Sweden played just two shy of 100 NHL games last season, thanks to the lengthy and impressive playoff run.
“I want to be a leader and if I can be a leader down here and play my game, it can only help,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I try to help the guys on my team. That’s what I want to be in the NHL too. This is a good start for me.”
The rest of the Pirates, meanwhile, are sure to benefit from the presence of the lanky Swede. And like the rest of the AHL, the anticipation of next week’s season opener continues to build through a training camp significnalty different in tone than most years.
“I used to spend the first week of (AHL training camp) as a camp counseller,” Treliving said. “You’re part psychologist because you are dealing with guys who have been just sent down. You’re hiding shoelaces and doing nightly tours of the bridges around here.
“This has been the most positive anyone has ever been in the history of American Hockey League training camps.”
There was no need to tell the players just who was sitting in the stands of the dimly lit Portland Ice Arena this week.
Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett was there with fellow members of his coaching staff with the NHL team, Sean Burke and Dave King. With nothing else to do, Tippett and Co. were betting acquainted with the talent that could come in handy when (if?) the NHL lockout is ever settled.
And one player among the 30-plus aspiring Pirates-Coyotes to mightily impress was Brendan Shinnimin, an undrafted junior standout who had three goals and two assists in an intra-squad scrimmage that was just 40 minutes long.
“He’s a first-year player that we all knew was a very good junior and he goes out in the scrimmage today, his team wins 6-0 and he has five points,” Tippett said of Treliving, a pint-sized centre who had 134 points with the Tri-City Americans of the AHL last season. “There’s a player that catches your eye and pushes himself forward in the group.”
Like most club officials we ran into at AHL camps this week, Tippet and Coyotes’ assistant general manager, Brad Treliving are trying to remain hopeful there will be an NHL season. And with the first two weeks cancelled — and who knows, likely more — chances are game-ready AHLers will be in even more demand.
“I think it’s going to be interesting,” Treliving said. “Depending on when (the lockout gets settled), with each day that goes by, how many of your regular guys have been playing? I think the longer it goes, the chance of it being more than one or two guys being promoted is increased.”