“I figured I wanted to change it up a little bit,” Ekholm said.
Whether or not the switch of numerals has anything to do with his successful sophomore season may never be known, but something is working for the 24-year-old blueliner.
After appearing in two games for the Preds during the 2011-12 season and then just one contest in 2012-13, Ekholm became a regular on the backend in Nashville last season, posting one goal and nine points through 62 outings.
In 63 games to date in the current campaign, Ekholm has five tallies and 10 helpers, both career highs for the 6-foot-4 D-man. And as welcome as his offensive numbers have been to the Preds this season, his defensive prowess has been equally impressive.
“Everything really,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said about what he likes in Ekholm’s game. “Defensively, he’s been solid. Offensively, he moves the puck well. He skates well, he contributes in the offensive zone, he’s helped out on the power play, penalty kill, and he’s been a real strong player for us. He’s had a real solid year.”
Ekholm would tend to agree with the assessment from his bench boss. A native of Borlange, Sweden, Ekholm says that the goal was to appear in every game this season. Aside from a brief bout with an upper-body injury in February, he’s done just that.
“I think my game is coming along both offensively and defensively,” Ekholm said. “I get more ice time, [the coaches] trust me in key situations, and that’s what you build from. That’s where you gain the confidence from. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m happy with my year so far.”
With a more offensive approach in place from Laviolette, Nashville defensemen often have the green light to play up into the rush or pinch down into the offensive zone. Ekholm’s first-career, game-winning goal, an overtime tally in Minnesota back on Dec. 20 to clinch a 6-5 win, is evidence of that philosophy; the defenseman scored the goal in the low slot after a wrap-around from behind the net.
Ekholm believes his agility and quickness on his feet, a quality that undoubtedly played into that game-winning marker, is most important when it comes to his overall success.
“Just my skating, that’s my biggest key,” Ekholm said. “My biggest asset is to be skating out there and move pucks from the D-zone to the offensive zone and just play a simple game and not turn the puck over.”
Improvements throughout Ekholm’s game have garnered more attention, and additional trust, in the defenseman. Laviolette believes that Ekholm has earned the right to play at crucial points in the game, rewarding the blueliner with minutes in key situations.
“We’ve been confident in him all year long,” Laviolette said of Ekholm. “I think what he brings to the table, with his skating and his puck skills, puts him in a situation where we can call on him late in the game to try and even up the score or try and create something. He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now too, you can see it.”
“Everyone wants to play as much as they can, and especially in those key situations where they really need you,” Ekholm said. “They really want you to step up, and I feel like that’s given me the most confidence this year, to play in those situations and handle them and play well within those situations. It’s been a lot of fun.”
It’s not just Ekholm’s coach that recognizes the second-year D-man’s burgeoning capacity to handle whatever is asked of him. Those that also skate on the blue line agree that Ekholm is coming into his own night after night.
“He’s a great player,” defenseman Cody Franson said. “He’s very well rounded, he does a lot of things the right way and he sees the game very well. He moves around like a small guy out there, so he’s a lot of fun to play with, and I’m hopeful that continues to be the case.”
“I think he’s a great player,” defenseman Seth Jones said. “He’s very easy to play with, he’s a great skater, skates himself out of trouble a lot which is nice, and he’s always there to support you. When I’ve played with him on and off through these couple of years, it’s been a real treat to play with him.”
The feeling is mutual for Ekholm. And it’s not only his fellow defensemen, but the entire roster’s willingness to do what’s right for the team, Ekholm says, that’s led to a plethora of personal and franchise records this season for the Preds.
“First of all, I think we have great personnel,” Ekholm said. “Everyone’s doing their job to 100 percent; great goaltending, great defense and great forwards. Everyone works hard for each other. And [Laviolette] has brought in this system and everyone buys into it.
“It’s been a lot of fun. Everyone knows their role out there and executes it. That’s really the biggest part, I think. Everyone buys into their role; even if you’re a fourth liner or first liner out there, you do your role. You do your job and then everyone knows what to do.”
Thanks to that buy-in throughout the Nashville locker room, Ekholm is looking to skate in his first-career Stanley Cup Playoff game come mid-April. While he’s never experienced the postseason at the NHL level, he’s got a Swedish Elite League title to his name with Byrnas, wearing No. 14 in the process no less, a ride that he’s hoping will prepare him for what’s ahead this spring.
“Everything’s on the line,” Ekholm said of the postseason. “It can be one game, it can be one situation and you just have to be 100 percent there all the time. I think that experience [in Sweden] is definitely going to help me.”
Time will tell how things will play out for Ekholm when the influx of pressure arrives in six weeks, but for now, he’s handling things just fine. His numbers on both sides of the puck speak for themselves.
And while the superstitious types may say otherwise, it’s likely that Ekholm would be having success with his growing role, no matter which multiple of seven is on his sweater.