The departure of Shea Weber from the Nashville Predators in the summer blockbuster trade represented a shift from the more stay-at-home game plan to the mobile roving defensive unit that currently exists. Nashville is now well known for it’s the presence of a staunch, offensively-minded top-four blue line consisting of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and the injured Ryan Ellis.
Nashville relied heavily on its top-four defensemen during its wild ride to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final with Josi ranking third, Ellis fourth, Subban seventh, and Ekholm eighth on the team in playoff points. The last name on that list always seems to be overlooked with the other powerhouse players around him yet he has played an integral defensive part in the Predators’ successes.
With the insane talent that the Predators defense has, it can be easy to be overshadowed by the big personality (Subban), the captain (Josi), or the all-around fan favorite (Ellis). Here, we take a look at one of the Predators’ most underrated players on the roster and his rise to an elite defender while in the shadows of the more well-known defenseman around him.
Ekholm’s Early Years
Initially billed by The Hockey News as having “a huge frame (6-4, 215 pounds), puck-moving ability and a big shot from the point,” Ekholm was drafted by the Predators 102 overall in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. While finding himself taken further down the draft board, he was in good company in the likes of Victor Hedman, Nick Leddy, and Ryan Ellis.
Ekholm would continue to play in the Swedish hockey system for Mora IK and Brynäs IF after being drafted. Throughout his time there he was able to put together solid numbers with 50 points (19 goals and 31 assists) in 97 games. Ekholm also spent some time with the Sweden International team where he collected 33 points (12 goals and 21 assists) in 97 games.
The idea of a stay-at-home defenseman was beginning to shift when the Predators drafted Ekholm and has completely changed over the course of eight years. Recently hired GM of the Arizona Coyotes stated, “It’s when we don’t have the puck, recover the puck as quickly as possible… Once you get the puck back it’s to transition the puck. Defense isn’t about defending, it’s about getting the puck in the forwards’ hands and getting the puck moving into the offensive zone. It’s about transitioning.”
There’s no question that Ekholm represented a young, talented defenseman who fit changing the philosophy of the NHL and the Nashville Predators.
Landing a Full-time Roster Spot
Ekholm would join the Predator’s AHL-affiliate Milwaukee Admirals in 2012 where he could continue to develop his technical skills and also work on utilizing his large size to his advantage. While with the Admirals, he would register 32 points (10 goals and 22 assists) in 59 games and quickly found his way to the bright, flashing neon lights of downtown Nashville where he would suit up in the gold and blue.
The 2013 season saw Ekholm gain decent exposure with the Predators playing in 62 games and averaging 16:49 time on ice. Interestingly, Ekholm would end up losing some time as a healthy scratch during the season in favor of another young defenseman – Ryan Ellis. While not blowing the doors off the barn, he made the best of his time to gather nine points (one goal and eight assists), albeit with a slight blemish of minus-eight rating.
Number 14 would learn from his mistakes in the following season, though, and show nothing but solid improvement across the board. In 80 games played in 2014, Ekholm doubled his previous point total to 18 (7 goals and 11 assists) showing that he is more than capable of playing in the big leagues. More importantly, he increased his average time on ice to 19:01 and sustained a plus-12 rating.
Now that Ekholm had some time to get accustomed to the speed and the physicality of playing in the NHL, he was more than ready to increase his responsibility on the Predators blue line.
Quietly Becoming an Elite Top-Four Defenceman
Ekholm has continued his ascension and further solidified that he can play at an elite level. Throughout 2015-17, Ekholm would score eleven goals and gather 27 assists while staying in the positive plus/minus rating. He would also continue to increase his average time on ice to 20:15 and then 23:28 – a whopping seven more minutes than when he entered the league showing the trust that the coaching staff has in his abilities.
The Predators also relied on Ekholm heavily during their post-season play where he has totaled 19 points (five goals and 14 assists) and an average time on ice of 24:59 over three trips to the playoffs. Ekholm made his presence known by jumping into the rush to generate scoring opportunities – a staple in being a part of the Nashville Predators’ defensive unit.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 21, 2017
Currently, Ekholm is tied for 13th among defenseman with 21 points (six goals and 15 assists) through 32 games, 22nd with a plus-nine rating, and tied for first with four power play goals. More and more heads are turning when Ekholm is on the ice, but you’d be hard-pressed to find him in the spotlight. With his current pace, he is on track for a career-best 15 goals, 30 assists, and a plus-22 rating but that wouldn’t be obvious to the casual eye.
To say that Mattias Ekholm has developed nicely in the Nashville system would be an understatement, and while his stellar play continues to fly under the radar, he’s probably okay with that as long as the Predators train keeps chugging along.