GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Phoenix Coyotes have made a big commitment to their somewhat tenuous future by signing 21-year-old Oliver Ekman-Larson to a six-year, $33 million contract, banking on the belief that the defenceman will become one of the best players in the NHL.
The signing, announced late Friday, was done with the approval of the NHL, which has owned the Coyotes for four seasons as the team searched for an owner that will keep the franchise in Arizona.
"When you watch us and you watch this young man, how he plays, you know he's not only a star now but he has a chance to be one of the best players in the league for a long, long time," general manager Don Maloney said. "That's why we stepped up and did it."
Ekman-Larsson has been considered Phoenix's top defenceman after the Coyotes took him with the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft.
He played in all 82 games last season, setting career highs with 13 goals and 19 assists. This season, he has three goals in 27 games and leads Coyotes defencemen with 14 assists and 17 points.
He has 17 goals and 43 assists in 157 career NHL games.
The Coyotes, who are being operated by the league for the fourth straight season, had made signing Ekman-Larsson a priority.
"It was really the second half of last season and his performance in the playoffs," Maloney said. "We went from hoping we had something special to realizing that we do have something special."
Getting a deal done before the end of the season was important, Maloney said, because while the Coyotes were determined to match any offer sheet Ekman-Larson might sign, they wanted the deal done on their terms, with the financial demands lower the first couple of years and growing later.
Regardless, though, any long-term deal was going to cost big money, Maloney said.
"In this day and age, you have to pay for quality," he said. "You either pay now or you pay more later."
The quiet Ekman-Larson was predictably humble about the deal and his own potential.
"It feels good to have it done, of course, but I didn't think about it when I played," he said in a conference call from Columbus, where the team played the Blue Jackets on Saturday. "I just tried to play my best to help my team."
Maloney said that the Coyotes saw the skill when they drafted the "scrawny, skinny kid" in 2009.
"Really what jumps out at you is his skating ability and his ability to move the puck," Maloney said.
The franchise's tenuous status in Phoenix did not figure into the deal, Maloney said, other than the fact that he had to consistently stay in contact with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly about the situation and why the long-term contract made sense.
"What we do on the hockey side is try to put out the best product we can with the resources we have," Maloney said. "Obviously there are some limits and we have to choose wisely who we spend on. But we continue to remain optimistic that our franchise will remain in Phoenix and remain in Phoenix for a long time."
Ekman-Larson was asked if he was surprised at how quickly he has emerged as a budding NHL star.
"That's a good question," he said. "I just tried to work hard in practice and games and tried to take it seriously my first year. I did play 48 games that first year and a full season last year, so I think I still can improve my game and get better."
He said he sees room for improvement in his entire game.
"I want to try to get better in every situation on the ice," he said, "the d-zone, the offensive zone. So I just have to keep working hard."
Talks began last summer, but any specifics were put off until the lockout of players ended and Maloney knew the kind of parameters that were set, not only by the collective bargaining agreement but with contracts signed with other young players around the league.
He said that Ekman-Larson is still maturing physically as well as mentally, but he's already an elite player in many ways.
"Obviously for anybody that's following us whatsoever, you understand the value that we place in Oliver," Maloney said.
Sabres send rookie Grigorenko to QMJHL
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Two months later, Buffalo Sabres rookie centre Mikhail Grigorenko proved he's not NHL-ready just yet.
Rather than continue providing him limited ice time in Buffalo, the Sabres elected on Friday to return Grigorenko to his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team, the Patrick Roy-coached Quebec Remparts.
General manager Darcy Regier refused to call the demotion a setback for the 18-year-old Russian-born player, who was selected 12th overall in the NHL draft in June.
"I think this is an opportunity for him to keep growing and building on his experience here," Regier said. "It was an experiment. I think there certainly are benefits. He has a very good understanding of what it's going to take to play in the National Hockey League going forward."
The move came as a slight surprise, after Grigorenko made the team out of training camp. And he made a good enough impression for the Sabres to keep him on their roster after five games, which is when his three-year entry level contract kicked in.
Grigorenko was never able to find his niche on a struggling team that, at 10-14-3, currently ranks 29th in the NHL. Buffalo is also in transition after coach Lindy Ruff was fired last month.
Relegated to playing on the fourth line, Grigorenko had one goal and four assists in 22 games while averaging 9:44 of ice time, among the lowest on the team. He was a healthy scratch five times, including a three-game stretch from Feb. 17-21.
Regier said he had been considering making this move for a few weeks. And it became necessary when the Sabres had to free up a roster spot to activate forward Ville Leino from injured reserve. Leino has missed the first 27 games with a hip injury, and is set to return Saturday, when Buffalo hosts Ottawa.
Grigorenko, who opened the season in Quebec, will rejoin the Remparts, who have one regular-season game left before preparing to open the playoffs next week. The Sabres will have the opportunity to bring Grigorenko back to Buffalo, or assign him to AHL Rochester, once the Remparts are eliminated from the playoffs.
"In the end, he's got a terrific opportunity to go back to Quebec, be the go-to guy and play 20-22 minutes," Regier said.
Habs sign Desharnais
to $14-million deal
MONTREAL -- David Desharnais had to prove a lot of people wrong before he hit the jackpot with a four-year, US$14 million contract with the Montreal Canadiens.
Neither big enough nor fast enough to impress the scouts, the five-foot-seven centre was overlooked in the NHL draft and only got a chance because he played for a junior team, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, that was partly owned by former Canadiens captain and coach Guy Carbonneau.
On Carboneau's recommendation, the Canadiens gave the stocky Desharnais a tryout in 2007.
And on Friday, the club showed that it now considers the Laurier Station, Que., native a key part of its future as it signed him to a long-term extension that will pay $3.5 million per season through 2016-17.
"You just have to know where you want to go and it doesn't matter what everyone else says," Desharnais said. "I'm so happy I don't know what to say."
-- from the news services