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Oliver Ekman-Larsson doing some heavy lifting for the Coyotes

By Adam Gretz | Hockey writer

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Pucks and Numbers is a weekly statistical look at what's happening around the NHL. This week: Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and how he's quickly becoming one of the best players in the league at his position.

If Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson isn't the best defenseman in the NHL yet, he's certainly on the short list of candidates who are in the discussion.

Plays like the one shown above are a nice example as to why he's in that discussion. He's not only wildly productive and effective as a No. 1 defenseman at a young age (he's only 21), he's also highly entertaining.

The Coyotes are riding a four-game losing streak, three of which have come by way of shutout. One of the many teams floating around the Western Conference playoff bubble, they are trying to scratch and claw their way into the postseason for the fourth straight year under coach Dave Tippett. On a team level, it hasn't been their best season. But it has been a breakout year for the Coyotes' young defenseman. If they are able to make a fourth straight appearance in the playoffs, he's going to be a key reason why.

The team recently signed him to a long-term contract extension that will pay him $5.5 million per year over the next six years. It's a wise investment. It's not only a good contract for the team right now, but by the end it might even look to be a little below market value for a guy who is well on his way to being one of the NHL's best defensemen for the foreseeable future -- if he isn't already there.

Through 30 games, he's playing more than 26 minutes per game in every situation (power play, shorthanded, shutdown minutes at even-strength) and has seen his offensive production skyrocket from where it was a season ago.

And he's doing it while playing what should be considered a shutdown role and some of the hardest minutes in the league among defensemen.

According to the quality of competition metrics at Behind The Net, no defenseman (mininum 10 games played) has faced tougher opponents this season than Ekman-Larsson while he's also starting the majority of his non-neutral zone shifts in the defensive zone. That is the definition of heavy lifting. He's playing the role of a shutdown defenseman, yet he's still putting up huge numbers in the offensive end and is one of the highest scoring defensemen in the league.

And he's not relying on the power play to boost that production. He's doing most of his damage at even-strength.

As of Wednesday, he's 16th among all defensemen in total points and fifth in terms of even-strength points. When you factor in the role that he plays, that's darn impressive.

I put together a quick chart showing the top-15 scoring defensemen in the NHL this season at even-strength to show how Ekman-Larsson's minutes compare to the rest of the top scoring defensemen. The horizontal axis represents the percentage of shifts that he has started in the offensive zone, while the vertical represents the quality of competition that he has faced.

The closer a player is to the top left, the tougher the assignments. The closer a player is to the bottom right, the more sheltered the assignments.

As you can see, Ekman-Larssson is currently in a league of his own in terms of tough minutes. I only marked his spot on the chart because the rest are just for a point of reference, but the only other top-scoring defensemen who's even close to him in terms of tough assignments is Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman (another underrated and underappreciated young defenseman in the NHL).

But if you're not into plot-points and numbers and prefer to see names to get an idea of what he's been going up against, just look at Ekman-Larsson's most common opponents this season in terms of 5-on-5 ice-time against.

Those names, in order of most ice-time against: Jaromir Jagr, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Ryan Getzlaf, Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson, Corey Perry, Jarome Iginla, Jordan Eberle, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Tanguay, Martin Erat, Colin Wilson, R.J. Umberger, Derick Brassard, Marian Hossa, and Jonathan Toews.

He has played more than 30 minutes this season against Jagr, Kopitar, Brown, Williams, Getzlaf, Benn, Eriksson and Perry.

They're some of the best players in the NHL.

Those are rough assignments for any defenseman, let alone a 21-year-old who entered this season with fewer than 150 games in the NHL. But it hasn't stopped him from keeping the play moving in the right direction and helping his team to fill the net at the other end of the ice and outscore their opponents when he's on the ice.

When he's on the ice against most the players listed above, the puck is usually in the Coyotes' end. That means he's helping to make the other team's best offensive players have to defend their own goal, which is the best way to keep them off the scoreboard.

Is he the best defenseman in the NHL at the moment? With Nicklas Lidstrom retired and Erik Karlsson out for the season, the argument should probably include the likes of Boston's Zdeno Chara, Nashville's Shea Weber, Pittsburgh's Kris Letang, St. Louis' Alex Pietrangelo and, yes, Ekman-Larsson.

He was my preseason Norris Trophy pick. And based on the way that he has played this season (and produced) given the assignments that he faces nightly, I haven't seen anything to make me change my mind on that pick.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @Agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook. Also, subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

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