Mattias Ekholm joins a deep stable of defensive prospects in the Preds system. Cody Franson graduated from prospect to full-time NHLer last year; Jonathon Blum showed very well at the NHL level down the backstretch of this season and through the playoffs. But the Preds cupboard is still full of impressive prospects on the back end with Ekholm joining Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Teemu Laakso as the most NHL ready from the group. The team still has high expectations for Charles-Olivier Roussel (a second round pick in ’09) and Taylor Aronson (a third round pick in 2010), both currently playing in juniors.
Laakso, a defensive defenseman, is the most NHL proven of that group, having spent time on the Preds roster in both of the last two seasons. Laakso also manned the top defensive pairing in Milwaukee this season – playing the majority of the year with Blum and the finishing the season with Josi. His development was stunted by injuries his first two seasons in North America, but Laakso is still just 23-years old and will enter 2011 Training Camp with 177 games of AHL experience (162 in the regular season and 15 playoffs) to go along with his time on the NHL roster.
Ellis is one of the most decorated defensemen to graduate through the Canadian Junior system in this generation. His name is all over the Ontario Hockey League’s record book – both career and individual season accomplishments – and he was named the OHL’s Player of the Year this season. Ellis has a history of showing up big in the playoffs; he played a starring role on Windsor’s Memorial Cup title runs in ’09 and ’10. Additionally, he’s been a standout at the World Junior Championships, etching his name in Team Canada’s record book for his performances during the WJCs.
Josi just wrapped up his first North American pro season with the Milwaukee Admirals. He entered the season with European credentials similar to Ellis’s accomplishments in Juniors. Josi was one of the top defensemen in the Swiss Elite League despite being 10 years younger than most of his opponents; he was a leader for Switzerland’s team that shocked hockey’s elite at the ’10 World Juniors advancing to the tournament’s semifinals and was named to Team Switzerland for the 2010 Olympics before having to sit the tournament out due to injury. Injuries and adjustment to the smaller North American ice surface slowed Josi’s performances at the start of this season, but he finished the year on Milwaukee’s top defense pairing while ranking among the top-20 in defenseman scoring with 40 points in 69 games played (including 10 points over the final dozen games of the season). He appears to be following a similar path as Blum and perhaps is at a place in his development to do next year what Blum did for the Preds at the end of this season.
But of the group, Ekholm has generated the most chatter. He entered the season under the radar for most pundits and scouts, but had a breakthrough campaign. Not only did he earn Rookie of the Year honors in Sweden, but he was impressive in his stints with Swedish national team. Ekholm moves the puck well and has solid offensive instincts, but what sets him apart is his size and ability to play to his size. Ekholm is already 6-foot-4 and a solid 200 pounds --- with the frame to add more --- and is as adept skill-wise as he is with his physicality.
The Preds have a system in place that puts a premium on development time with Milwaukee, but don’t be surprised if Ekholm, Ellis, Josi, or Laakso forces his way into the NHL during the ’11-12 season.