The development of Mattias Ekholm into an elite defender may have single-handedly changed and improved the course of the Nashville Predators defensive corps.
In 2012, the Swedish blueliner still wasn’t on course to contribute regularly, playing in a mere trio of NHL games, despite being drafted three years prior in 2009. Two years later, and coinciding with the arrival of Peter Laviolette in Nashville, however, Ekholm’s career took a sharp, positive turn.
Stereotyped as an offensive d-man, who could only skate during sheltered minutes, Ekholm shook off the criticism during the 2014-15 season; his advanced stats jumping from one corner of the graph to the other and his offensive numbers and time on ice rising substantially as well. Suddenly, Ekholm went from defensive liability to cornerstone of the Predators defensive unit, becoming an unexpected blessing for the Top Four. His development, along with Ryan Ellis's, gave the club a very realistic right to claim they had the No. 1 defense in the NHL.
After inking a six-year contract extension on October of 2015, the 26-year-old took another step forward last season, nearly doubling his major statistics set in 2014-15 and registering seven points in the postseason.
“I think he is developing really well. He [almost] doubled his offensive output from last year. Each year, he makes strides in his game in being one of those top four guys,” Preds Assistant Coach Phil Housley said of Ekholm. “Playing against really good competition and playing in all situations, I think he has to continue to grow as a player. I think his skating is second to none. He’s got quickness, he’s got speed, he can close as well and he has a great stick.”
The last two seasons have seen Ekholm earn a new reputation - that of a being a performer in the game’s most pressure-filled moments. The Swede tallied two highlight-reel goals in 2014-15 by using a pair of individual efforts, first beating the Canadiens’ Carey Price, and later, the Capitals’ Braden Holtby. This season, he scored eight more times, including the Predators’ first 3-on-3 overtime goal in franchise history. During the Preds’ playoff run this spring, two of his goals tied the score and the other gave Nashville a 1-0 lead in a potential-elimination Game Six versus the Ducks.
One of the team’s smoothest skaters, Ekholm should either resume his position alongside D-partner Ryan Ellis or possibly skate with newcomer P.K. Subban in 2016-17. Either way, Housley expects Ekholm’s upward trend to only continue.
“He’s got to continue to be consistent,” Housley said. “Sometimes he had some ups and downs this year, but I think that with experience and age that’s going to get better. I think the future looks great for him as well.”