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Oliver Ekman-Larsson Makes Big Comeback with the Florida Panthers

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Florida Panthers Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Oliver Ekman-Larsson was named the Florida Panthers’ Masterton Trophy nominee after having his best season since his days with the Arizona Coyotes. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

FORT LAUDERDALE — Oliver Ekman-Larsson finds himself in a much better place than he was a year ago.

The 32-year-old defenseman was cleaning out his Vancouver Canucks locker after missing the final two months of the season with an ankle injury.

A few months later, Vancouver bought him out in what was the largest buyout in NHL history a few months later.

Yet after a long grind of an offseason and a one-year prove it deal with the Florida Panthers, Ekman-Larsson looks like himself again and will have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since the 2020 Covid bubble.

He was named Florida’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy nominee by the PHWA for his efforts.

“It’s obviously tough when you’re struggling,” Ekman-Larsson told FHN. “It’s tough when you’re hurt, and that’s kind of part of it.

“But, at the same time, to be able to come back and feel better, I think that’s the key. Just to be able to play the game that I love and been playing for a long time, I think that’s it’s so special. I’m just trying to have as much fun as I can.”

The buyout was a humbling experience for Ekman-Larsson.

Lauded as one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL for a large portion of his career, Ekman-Larsson’s two seasons in Vancouver following a trade from his longtime home with the Arizona Coyotes did not go as planned.

Ekman-Larsson came into both seasons after rehabbing an injury and scored a combined seven goals and 51 points in 133 games while struggling defensively and posting a plus/minus of minus-19.

A season-ending ankle injury put the nail in the coffin for his Canucks tenure and the team decided to move on from him in the offseason in a historic buyout totaling nearly $20 million.

He bounced back from it quickly, though, signing a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Panthers on the first day of free agency.

“It’s always tough,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I think it doesn’t really matter if it’s in life or in hockey. I think they obviously wanted to go in a different direction and it’s part of the business.

“But at the same time, it’s never fun to hear, you take it personally and you obviously want to do better. I feel like I’ve been using that in my favor and just put in the work I needed to this past summer and I’m here feeling good.

“It’s been pretty easy to come to this team and the guys have been great. I’ve said it so many times, but the way they’ve been treating me Day 1 and just helped me out. I think it’s all on them.”

Ekman-Larsson arrived in Florida and immediately had his best season since leaving Arizona.

In 80 games, he has more goals than he scored in his entire tenure in Vancouver (9) and the most points he has scored since the 2018-19 season (32).

It took a lot of work to get there and now he is reaping the rewards.

“It actually started four years ago that I really switched it up a little bit and tried different stuff in the summer and skated a little bit more,” Ekman-Larsson said.

“When you’re hurt in the summer, it kind of cuts it in half a little bit, and two summers ago, I wasn’t really able to skate until training camp, so I was a little behind. You still put in the work but I wasn’t able to do what you need to to do be prepared. It’s hard to playa against the best guys in the world, so it goes without saying but I ended up breaking my foot again that year, got the season cut short, but looking back at it, that was probably a good thing that I could get a long summer that I really needed to handle everything with the foot and then get back to feeling good.

“I was feeling a lot better when the season was done and then I had the whole summer to do what I needed to do.

“I think it helped me a lot but it’s tough being on the sideline and going through injury. You want to go and be out there battling with the team and your teammates and I think you’ll learn a lot about yourself and try to take that and use that to your advantage.”

That he did.

“We got the positive end of it,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said of the work it took Ekman-Larsson to get to this point.

“Understand that this guy was the captain of a team for a long time. He was an elite player and then he had a bunch of injuries that kept him from being that and he ended up getting bought out because of it. He went through two years of physical pain, but also that angst and anxiety of not being as good as you know you are and he wasn’t able to be.

“We were the benefactors of him having gone through two difficult years, and they are really hard when you’re an elite player and you have a very high expectation and if you’re playing in a Canadian market and you are underdelivering because of it, it’s very hard with all of the scrutiny there. He’s had a tough two years and he managed it. He got healthy, got in shape, got through our camp and he’s played incredibly well for us. We’ve really enjoyed having him, too. He is a very positive person.”

When the season started, the Panthers needed him to play top-pairing minutes when Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad missed the first month of the season with injuries.

He held down the role and helped Florida sustain one of the best records in the league.

And he continued to play with the same work ethic once his role diminished upon their return.

“He’s been awesome on and off the ice. He’s a really good guy and a good friend, so I’m happy for him,” Gus Forsling said. “I grew up watching him before I came over here and it’s been great for everyone. I think it’s awesome playing with him and we’re having a lot of fun.”

And the most important part of the season: 80 games.

Ekman-Larsson will miss just his second game of the season when the Panthers close out the regular season Tuesday against the Maple Leafs, but he is expected to be healthy and ready when the team opens the playoffs perhaps as early as Saturday.

While he does not want to jinx it, that has been one of the most rewarding parts of the season.

“It’s great to know the body is holding up,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I don’t really want to talk about it because you never know what’s going to happen and it’s part of the game, but at the same time you can’t think about it.

“But just knowing that your body is holding up, and to be honest, I haven’t felt this good body-wise in six or seven years, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

For The Best Coverage of the Florida Panthers Anywhere:

ON DECK

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • TV/Streaming: ESPN/ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • This Season (Leafs Lead 2-1) — At Florida: Panthers 3, Leafs 1 (Oct. 19); Tuesday. At Toronto: Leafs 2, Panthers 1 (Nov. 28); Leafs 6, Panthers 4 (April 1).
  • Last Season: Toronto won Regular Season Series 3-1; Florida won Eastern Conference Semifinals 4-1
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 50-37-7, 7 ties
  • END REGULAR SEASON
  • Up Next for the Panthers: GAME 1, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals; TBA

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