PORTLAND – Even the most casual observer wouldn’t have trouble picking out defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in a group of players on the ice.

“If you know nothing about hockey and you saw him play, you would say ‘this guy is better than everybody else,’ ” Phoenix Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving said.

Because of the NHL player lockout, Ekman-Larsson, who played in every game for the Coyotes last season, will start this year with the Portland Pirates in their second year as Phoenix’s American Hockey League affiliate.

“He’s a young player, but his game sense and his thinking of the game is very strong, very advanced, especially playing defense, which is the hardest position to play in the NHL,” said Coyotes Coach Dave Tippett, in Portland for the opening days of the Pirates’ training camp.

“He thinks the game well on positioning. Then you add a skill set, which is excellent. He’s a good skater. He shoots the puck well.”

Selected by the Coyotes in the first round of the 2009 NHL draft, Ekman-Larsson, who turned 21 in July, became a fixture in the lineup during the 2010-11 season after playing 15 games with the San Antonio Renegades, Phoenix’s former AHL affiliate.

“He’s a young player who jumped in and adapted to the NHL very quickly coming from Europe,” Tippett said. “He has a passion and competitiveness that had made him a very good player.”

While playing 130 regular-season games for the Coyotes the past two seasons, Ekman-Larsson has 14 goals and 29 assists. Last season, in 16 Stanley Cup playoff games, he had a goal and three assists.

“After Christmas, Oliver and our goalie (Mike Smith) were our best players,” Treliving said.

If the NHL was in operation, Ekman-Larsson wouldn’t be playing for the Pirates, but he doesn’t mind being assigned here.

“Of course I’m going to miss the desert, but this is a nice city, too, and I think I’m going to enjoy it,” he said.

“I’m going to work hard every day. I just have to compete hard and work hard in the (defensive) zone and join the rush when I have the chance. I’m going to play my game, a two-way defenseman. I try to be that.”

Ekman-Larsson did ask the Coyotes whether he could remain in Sweden during the lockout and play for the Swedish Elite League team in his hometown of Leksand, about a three-hour drive north of Stockholm.

“I talked to Phoenix about it and they wanted me to be here,” Ekman-Larsson said. “I’m happy to be here and I’m going to try to do anything to help the team.”

At the time of Ekman-Larsson’s query, the Swedish league wasn’t allowing of its teams to pick up NHL players idled by the lockout.

“By the time they did allow their teams to add NHL players, we had already made our plans,” Treliving said.

“He knows this is a better place for him. We get to monitor him day by day here. There, he would be 3,000 miles away and we’d just be hearing about what he’s doing.

Ekman-Larsson is in the third and final year of his NHL entry contract.

According to CapGeek,com., he defenseman will receive a seasonal salary of $67,500 while in the AHL. If the NHL were playing, Ekman-Larsson would get $900,000 for the season.

NOTES: Tippett, who observed the Pirates’ practice sessions Sunday morning while sitting in the stands at the Portland Ice Arena, was pleased with the physical condition of the players. “The pace of practice was excellent,” he said. “I was very pleased with that part of it.” Sean Burke, the Coyotes’ goalie coach, and Dave King, the team’s director of player development, were both on the ice during the practice sessions. The Pirates will hold their first intrasquad scrimmage at 10:45 a.m. Monday at Portland Ice Arena.

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:

pbetit@pressherald.com

Twitter: PaulBetitPPH