GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Edmonton Oilers serve as cure-all, of sorts, for the Arizona Coyotes. Whenever things are going bad in the desert, the Oilers provide a little pick-me-up.
So with Arizona is coming off two consecutive goalless games, what better time to see Edmonton on the schedule? And what better time to re-insert defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has owned the Oilers in his career, into the lineup after missing the prior six games due to an injury?
As has worked so well in the last 22 attempts, Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes continued their torrid pace against the lowly Oilers, improving to 19-0-4 in the last 23 matchups with a 4-2 victory on Tuesday night at Gila River Arena. Ekman-Larsson recorded one assist and was on the ice for all four Arizona goals. He now has 18 points (8-10–18) in his last 23 games against the Alberta club.
“I felt pretty good,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I told myself before the game yesterday to be patient with the puck and make easy and simple plays and I thought I did a pretty good job of that.”
Ekman-Larsson’s dominance of the Oilers is special, but his success is not chained to one team. You may not hear his name in the Norris Trophy conversation this season, for better or worse, but Ekman-Larsson is the straw that stirs the drink for the Coyotes. He is a true all-situations, No. 1 defenseman in a league with so few players of that skill set.
“You can’t replace that guy,” Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith said. “He’s a special player and obviously when he’s not in the lineup he’s missed.”
“You just can’t replace his leadership, his minutes that he eats up and the skill set that he has, so it’s nice to have him back,” Smith added.
He’s the core piece that separates a team like the Oilers and the Coyotes. Obviously comparisons like that are never as simple and easy as one player, but for two teams with a cornucopia of talented young players up front, having a top blueliner like Ekman-Larsson should give Coyotes fans more hope for the future than the average Oilers supporter.
A system full of forward prospects and forward prospects alone has proven to be an ineffective rebuilding model. Arizona may have to face that reality sooner rather than later with a ton of forward talent on the way and only two NHL defensemen under contract for next season (Zbynek Michalek and Ekman-Larsson). Although they have some control of their six mid-20s defensemen set to become restricted free agents in the offseason, there is little to no help waiting in the pipeline.
The search for a true No. 2 defenseman to play alongside Ekman-Larsson continues, and it looks more and more like Arizona will have to move a forward in order to find one. A second-pairing left defenseman should be added to the wish list as well.
Ekman-Larsson patrolling the blue line is a remedy for a lot of ills, but can’t get the Coyotes into perennial playoff contention alone. After all, Arizona can’t play Edmonton every night.