Glendale, Arizona - Oliver Ekman-Larsson enjoyed his first season as captain of the Coyotes, and under his leadership the team nearly reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"It was a little bit different, but I had a lot of fun and I think I learned a lot about myself and my teammates," Ekman-Larsson said earlier this week before the Coyotes, who missed the post-season by just four points, scattered for the off-season. "It was a good challenge."
Ekman-Larsson quietly played through knee and ankle injuries for a big chunk of the season and led the team in ice time at 23:38 per game. He placed second with 44 points, three behind leader Clayton Keller, and his 14 goals ranked tied for eighth among NHL defensemen.
But this season, his ninth in the League, was less about Ekman-Larsson's stats and more about his ability to lead an NHL team. His aforementioned injuries, and injuries to several key players throughout the season, created adversity for the up-and-coming club. The rookie captain helped steady the ship.
"A real bright spot," General Manager John Chayka said of Ekman-Larsson's performance wearing the 'C' on his sweater. "With all those different things that he went through in his first year as a captain, I was extremely impressed."
The biggest lesson Ekman-Larsson learned is that a captain has to be invested in all 20-plus players and not just in himself.
"It's not all about you," Ekman-Larsson said. "It's all about your teammates, and making them have a good time and feel good and feel comfortable ... There's so much more that you have to think about instead of just thinking about your game."
Managing 20-plus teammates, he said, can be a little tricky.
"Everybody's different," Ekman-Larsson said. "Some guys you can scream and yell at a little bit, and some guys you need to back off, maybe, and have a one-on-one talk with them."
Ekman-Larsson also led by example, especially at the end of the season when the games mattered most. His two-goal performance in the third period vs. Colorado on March 29, in a key head-to-head matchup with the team just above Arizona in the standings, will long be remembered and respected.
"He had an incredible year," Chayka said. "And down the stretch, when we needed big plays, he was the guy that stepped up and did that."
Earlier in the season, Ekman-Larsson set a new franchise record for goals by a defenseman, and with 334 points he ranks 13th on the team's all-time points list. He'll likely crack the top-10 next season.
"I felt really good about my game for the last two months or so," Ekman-Larsson said. "I felt like I was playing my best hockey. I felt like I came up big when the team really needed me to step up, and that's something that I'm really proud of. I also know that the team needs me to do that."
Teammates liked what they saw from Ekman-Larsson in his first season as their official leader.
Center Derek Stepan summed it up best:
"He was a beast all year and that's just his play. He was one of the top defenseman all year long. He led our group in many ways and he came up big for us and won us some big hockey games just because of his play. Off the ice, 'O' is one of the greatest humans I've ever met. I think he got a little bit of Shane Doan to rub off on him. He's got a lot of those qualities. The leading part just comes natural with him.
"Any time someone gets a 'C' you always hear talk about guys changing, and I don't think 'O' changed anything, and I thought he just did a good job of doing what he's done every year. He just had a new letter on his chest and he did a good job with it."