Special to Sports News Highlights

(SNH) — Oliver Ekman-Larsson is not a minus player.

Despite what his career statistics suggest, the offensive-minded defenseman injects a puck-moving element to the Florida Panthers’ defensive corps and nearly a decade-and-a-half of NHL experience into the locker room.

For Ekman-Larsson, the Panthers’ journey to the Stanley Cup finals ended a hard road he endured the past few seasons. Actually, for much of his career since being drafted No. 6 overall in 2009 by the then-Phoenix Coyotes.

During his 14 seasons, Ekman-Larsson has appeared in 982 regular-season games and compiled a minus-118 rating. Six times he recorded seasons of at least minus-16, bottoming out at minus-28 during 2017-18 with the re-branded Phoenix Coyotes.

In his first season with the Panthers, Ekman-Larsson is proving to be a plus skater – at least during winning efforts.

In the Panthers’ 50 regular-season wins in which he dressed, Ekman-Larsson collected a plus-30 rating, but was a minus-20 during the 30 losses.

Ekman-Larsson finally in Cup final

Qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive season, the Panthers’ players elected not to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy after claiming the Eastern Conference title in a six-game series over the New York Rangers. Last season, the Panthers bucked tradition and mobbed the second-tier trophy. Florida swept the first home series to take a 2-0 lead over Edmonton.

The Panthers’ message remained clear.

“We touched it last year and it didn't work for us,” Panthers forward Sam Bennett said, as reported by The Associated Press. “So, we thought we'd try something different this year.”

The Panthers returned to the title round after falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games last spring.

Entering their third Cup final in franchise history, the Panthers were also swept by the Colorado Avalanche in 1996, the franchise had been minus-7 all-time in Cup outings.

Ekman-Larsson knows all too well the feeling of coming up short.

After joining a veteran-laden Coyotes club, the smooth-skating, second-year blueliner helped spark Phoenix to the 2011-12 Pacific Division regular-season title and a trip to the conference finals, losing to the Los Angeles Kings.

Ekman-Larsson and the franchise failed to qualify for the postseason over the next seven seasons and Ekman-Larsson compiled a combined minus-92 rating during that span.

A four-time NHL All-Star during the Coyotes’ playoff drought, Ekman-Larsson's run-and-gun style led to a series of positive and minus highlights and an eight-year, $66 million contract.

Within two years, the small-market franchise realized it couldn’t afford the luxury.

Joining Panthers on gut feeling

Traded by the Coyotes during the 2021 offseason, Ekman-Larsson endured two chaotic campaigns with the Vancouver Canucks. His first season started slowly after suffering a broken foot during the 2022 IIHF World Championship. After registering a minus-24 rating in 54 games last season, the Canucks bought out the remaining four years of his contract.

A free agent last summer, Ekman-Larsson and his representatives put in their due diligence to locate the right situation. With only 25 career playoff appearances with the Coyotes and none with Canucks, he wanted a summer job.

Snubbing several offers, Ekman-Larsson joined the Panthers for one reason. And a Stanley Cup run into June.

“Yes absolutely,” he told The Hockey News. “It’s really hard to know beforehand, but I heard great things and went with my gut feeling. There are really great guys here – great hockey players.”

After qualifying for his first Stanley Cup final, the 32-year-old celebrated his free-agent decision following the Game 6 win over the Rangers.

“Working so hard,” Ekman-Larsson said. “You never know if you’ll get the chance, so it feels good.”

In 17 playoff games with the Panthers, Ekman-Larsson registered one goal and three power-play assists. He was also a minus-2 rating.

For the Panthers to earn the franchise’s first Cup championship, Ekman-Larsson likely cannot continue to be a minus player.

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