The Phoenix Coyotes have made a big commitment to their somewhat tenuous future by signing 21-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larsson to a six-year, $33 million US contract, banking on the belief that the defenceman will become one of the best players in the NHL.
The signing, announced late Friday, was done with the approval of the NHL, which has owned the Coyotes for four seasons as the team searched for an owner that will keep the franchise in Arizona.
"When you watch us and you watch this young man, how he plays, you know he's not only a star now but he has a chance to be one of the best players in the league for a long, long time," general manager Don Maloney said. "That's why we stepped up and did it."
Ekman-Larsson has been considered Phoenix's top defenceman after the Coyotes took him with the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft.
He played in all 82 games last season, setting career highs with 13 goals and 19 assists. This season, he has three goals in 27 games and leads the Coyotes defencemen with 14 assists and 17 points.
He has 17 goals and 43 assists in 157 career NHL games.
The Coyotes, who are being operated by the league for the fourth straight season, had made signing Ekman-Larsson a priority.
"It was really the second half of last season and his performance in the playoffs," Maloney said. "We went from hoping we had something special to realizing that we do have something special."
Getting a deal done before the end of the season was important, Maloney said, because while the Coyotes were determined to match any offer sheet Ekman-Larson might sign, they wanted the deal done on their terms, with the financial demands lower the first couple of years and growing later.
Regardless, though, any long-term deal was going to cost big money, Maloney said.
"In this day and age, you have to pay for quality," he said. "You either pay now or you pay more later."
The quiet Ekman-Larson was predictably humble about the deal and his own potential.
"It feels good to have it done, of course, but I didn't think about it when I played," he said in a conference call from Columbus, where the team plays the Blue Jackets on Saturday. "I just tried to play my best to help my team."
'Scrawny, skinny kid'
Maloney said that the Coyotes saw the skill when they drafted the "scrawny, skinny kid" in 2009.
"Really what jumps out at you is his skating ability and his ability to move the puck," the general manager said.
The franchise's tenuous status in Phoenix did not figure into the deal, Maloney said, other than the fact that he had to consistently stay in contact with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly about the situation and why the long-term contract made sense.
"What we do on the hockey side is try to put out the best product we can with the resources we have," Maloney said. "Obviously there are some limits and we have to choose wisely who we spend on. But we continue to remain optimistic that our franchise will remain in Phoenix and remain in Phoenix for a long time."
Ekman-Larson was asked if he was surprised at how quickly he has emerged as budding NHL star.
"That's a good question," he said. "I just tried to work hard in practice and games and tried to take it seriously my first year. I did play 48 games that first year and a full season last year, so I think I still can improve my game and get better."
He said he sees room for improvement in his entire game.
"I want to try to get better in every situation on the ice," he said, "the d-zone, the offensive zone. So I just have to keep working hard."
Talks began last summer, but any specifics were put off until the lockout of players ended and Maloney knew the kind of parameters that were set, not only by the collective bargaining agreement but with contracts signed with other young players around the league.
He said that Ekman-Larson is still maturing physically as well as mentally, but he's already an elite player in many ways.
"Obviously for anybody that's following us whatsoever, you understand the value that we place in Oliver," Maloney said.
"When a 21-year-old is your top scorer, best plus-minus player, one of the top ice time players in the league, when he's mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate, we felt the sooner we get him signed to a long-term deal, the better."