Mattias Ekholm developing into fourth elite defenseman for Predators
Has joined Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis as all-situation players against Ducks during Western Conference Finalby Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial
Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators was not born to be a defenseman. Instead he grew into the role, slowly but surely becoming an elite player at the position at the highest level.
"It's funny to look back to it how well it turned out," Ekholm said earlier during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now he is an integral part of a Predators team that has reached the Western Conference Final for the first time and is two wins from playing for the Stanley Cup. The best-of-7 series with the Anaheim Ducks is tied 2-2 after a 3-2 overtime win by the Ducks in Game 4 on Thursday.
Game 5 is in Anaheim on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
[RELATED: Predators lament poor start to Game 4 | Complete series coverage]
Ekholm began his career as a forward with his youth team in Mora, Sweden, dreaming of scoring goals and emulating Swedish forwards like Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg.
But when he was 12 or 13, Ekholm was asked to switch positions because his team was short on defensemen and the new coach, the father of Ekholm's best friend on the team, wanted to see other players at forward.
It was just temporary, Ekholm was told. Temporary unless you prove to be a natural, it seems.
Ekholm never went back to forward.
"I just stuck with it and it was a good choice," he said.
It certainly has been. Just ask the Nashville Predators, who have benefitted from the decision for the past four seasons. But never more so than during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Video: STL@NSH, Gm6: Josi finishes Ekholm's pinpoint feed
Everyone knows about the three high-profile defensemen on the roster, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. But Ekholm, 26, should be in that conversation.
Just ask Nashville coach Peter Laviolette.
"He really is so underrated in terms of what he brings to the table on a nightly basis," Laviolette said during the Western Conference Second Round against the St. Louis Blues. "He is so hard to play against. He can skate, he can move a puck, shoot a puck, defend. He's courageous out there.
"There's not a lot he doesn't do. He's a 24- or 25-minute guy with no limitations to what he can do. There's not a situation you could bring up where I could say, 'Well, maybe that's not cut for him.' He's cut [out] for all situations."
Ekholm, who is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, has averaged 25:21 of ice time in 14 postseason games, third on the Predators but 1:06 per game less than Josi and 27 less than Subban. He has seven points, all on assists, and is a plus-9, which leads Predators defenseman.
Like Nashville's other elite defensemen, Ekholm excels because of his skating ability. It's the skill that prompted his position switch as a youth player in Sweden and it's the skill that has allowed him to prosper in North America.
"I think his skating ability is really second to none," Ellis said. "He has a tremendous stride. He's obviously big, which means he covers a lot of ground quicker. He's got a great stick. His defensive reads and offensive reads are great. Really he's just your complete two-way defenseman.
"Having had the chance to play with him in the past, I know he made my life a lot easier. You give him the puck and watch him go. He's a terrific defenseman."
Video: NSH@CBJ: Forsberg, Ekholm team up for go-ahead goal
While Ekholm's skating got him noticed at every level he played, it's his mental toughness that has allowed him to grow in importance with Nashville.
Laviolette trusts Ekholm in every situation because Ekholm has earned that trust with his play.
Paired with Subban, he has drawn the majority of the shutdown shifts in the postseason, putting the clamps on Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues in the second round and Ryan Getzlaf of the Ducks during the conference final.
He plays on the second power-play unit and on the second pair on the penalty kill. He is out in last minutes of the game holding the lead or looking for the tying goal.
"I don't enjoy sitting on the bench," Ekholm said. "If there is any situation where I [have to] sit on the bench, I just want to get better at it and that is pretty much the mindset I have had my whole career.
"It's just a will to want to be able to play in every situation because that is the ultimate. That is what everyone wants to be; they want to be out there and make a difference. It's a will not to be on the bench in any situation and feel like you can handle anything."