Ekman-Larsson seeks 'best version' of himself with Maple Leafs

‘I don’t really look at the age. I feel a lot better than what I did when I was 25, to be honest with you, body-wise.’

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Fired up for another four years, at least.

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To hear new Maple Leafs defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson tell it on Thursday, he doesn’t envision an end to his National Hockey League career.

Of course, it’s going to come to an end at some point for Ekman-Larsson, who turns 33 on July 17. After an invigorating season with the Florida Panthers, however, one that concluded in the best way possible with a Stanley Cup, Ekman-Larsson’ only focus is on building on that after signing a four-year contract with the Leafs that carries an average annual value of $3.5 million U.S.

“I want to play until I’m super-old and they carry me off the ice,” Ekman-Larsson said during a Zoom call from his off-season home in Sweden, his first availability with Leafs beat writers since he signed on Monday. “I don’t really look at the age. I feel a lot better than what I did when I was 25, to be honest with you, body-wise.

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“I feel like I’ve been taking steps in the right direction. I found my game again. Just keep improving, keep working hard in the off-season to bring that into the new season when I’m joining the Maple Leafs on the ice.”

After the Vancouver Canucks bought him out a year ago, Ekman-Larsson signed a one-year contract with the Panthers and set his mind to rebounding after the mental challenge that came with being let go in that manner.

Not only did he keep in good health, playing in 80 games for the first time in five years, Ekman-Larsson’s 32 points (nine goals and 23 assists) were the most he recorded since 2018-19 when he was with the Arizona Coyotes.

“It was hard to get bought out,” Ekman-Larsson said. “That was my first time … pretty much getting fired. But I’ve always believed in myself and knew that the last two seasons before (2023-24), I haven’t been healthy, been battling some injuries.

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“Florida gave me a great chance, a great opportunity to come in.(Brandon) Montour and (Aaron) Ekblad were out at the beginning of the year and I played with (Gustav) Forsling, who helped me a lot. I have a lot to thank him for.

“I felt like myself and played my game. I thought I had a really good year.”

Where Ekman-Larsson plays in the Leafs’ new-look defence corps remains to be seen. If it’s accepted that Chris Tanev will be partnered with Morgan Rielly, and new coach Craig Berube keeps the duo of Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit together, it would be natural to assume that Ekman-Larsson will pair up with Timothy Liljegren.
Given his offensive instincts, Ekman-Larsson will see time on the Leafs’ power-play units.

“Anything that they need me to do,” Ekman-Larsson said of his role with the Leafs. “That’s how I look at it. I feel like I’m still skating well. I know I’m moving the puck well, breaking the puck out. That’s something that I want to do and still feel like I can improve on.

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“I just want to be the best version of myself. And I feel like I can be that in Toronto with a lot of good players around me.”

Whether Jani Hakanpaa is part of the mix on the Toronto defence remains to be seen. Though the Leafs’ signing of the 32-year-old Finn was reported on Monday after free agency opened, there has not been an announcement from the Leafs and Hakanpaa had not, as of early Thursday afternoon, been added to the club’s official roster.

Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons wrote this week that Hakanpaa’s knee injury, one that ended his season with the Dallas Stars in mid-March, could be worse than thought, with sources indicating to Simmons that Hakanpaa might not play again. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the Leafs signed depth defencemen Dakota Mermis and Philippe Myers on Tuesday.

A message sent to Hakanpaa’s agent, Mika Rautakallio, was not immediately returned.

There are no similar concerns with Ekman-Larsson. In the Leafs room, he has familiarity with fellow Swedes Liljegren and William Nylander and was a teammate of Max Domi and Mermis in Arizona.

“I’m super-excited about the group,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I think it’s hard to find better talented players than what we have in that room. If it’s shooting, passing, skating, to get them more space with the puck or whatever they need, super-excited about the chance.

“It’s pretty new at the same time. I’m really looking forward to catching up and sitting down and getting to know them a little bit more.”

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