Coyotes struggle without injured captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson

When the Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson was helped off the ice after an injury during the third period of a game against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 16, no one was sure how long he would be out. He is still missing and the team has struggled during his absence. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

GLENDALE – Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the face of the Arizona Coyotes.

Excluding last season’s shortened campaign, Ekman Larsson has played in at least 75 games every season since 2013-14, all with Arizona. He’s been an All-Star five times and the Coyotes captain since 2018.

Since Shane Doan’s retirement, Ekman-Larsson’s name has been synonymous with the Valley’s NHL franchise.

“He’s our captain, so he’s always been a big part of our team,” Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said.

So, when Ekman-Larsson had to be helped off the ice during Arizona’s second game of the season with a lower-body injury, it left the Coyotes without more than just their face – it left them without their heart and soul.

“He’s a power play guy, he’s a penalty kill guy, he’s a big chunk of our team,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “We’re going to need five to six men to step up on defense to help us out.”

The Coyotes have not been the same team without Ekman-Larsson.

With a 2-5 record since his departure, Arizona has had trouble filling the hole Ekman-Larsson’s absence left in the lineup. Tocchet has rotated defensemen Jordan Gross, Victor Soderstrom and Kyle Capobianco in his place.

And Arizona’s depth at the back wasn’t ideal even before Ekman-Larsson’s injury, as defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin, who played 51 games for the Coyotes last season, didn’t arrive back in the United States until Jan. 24 due to visa issues.

“Anytime you lose one of your best players and a guy who logs a lot of minutes and plays every situation, it’s tough,” Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz said. “We miss (Ekman-Larsson) back there.”

Ekman-Larsson’s absence from the ice has hindered Arizona most on offense, despite his blue-line role.

No other defenseman on the Coyotes roster had spent more time on the power play last season, on average, than their captain. He also led all defensemen on the team in points scored during two of the previous three seasons.

This year, with Ekman-Larsson out, Arizona has struggled to put the puck in the net.

The Coyotes were shutout in back-to-back home losses to Las Vegas and rebuilding Anaheim before they bounced back to beat the Ducks 3-2 before departing on a six-game trip that begins Tuesday in St. Louis.

On the power play, the Coyotes have scored on just four of 25 opportunities without Ekman-Larsson available.

“It’s a big loss, we knew it . . . he’s our No.1 defenseman,” Tocchet said. “Having him and (Chychrun, we have) two guys who can shoot the puck. Taking that other shot guy away really hurts you.”

Thursday Tocchet said that Ekman-Larsson is projected to return to the lineup “soon.” And the defenseman was skating with his teammates at practice on Saturday ahead of Arizona’s upcoming trip.

At 3-5-1 to start the season, 2021 has been a mixed bag for the Coyotes. Arizona was in last place in the division before Friday’s win over the Ducks and hadn’t scored a goal in seven consecutive periods before the second period of that game.

Despite that, the Coyotes are only two points shy of the fourth playoff spot in a top-heavy West Division. And with Ekman-Larsson returning soon, perhaps even during this upcoming road trip, Arizona remains within reach of the postseason.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Tocchet said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Koki Riley expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Riley, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and Cape Cod Baseball League, is working for Cronkite News this spring.