The season turned in by Mattias Ekholm during the 2014-15 campaign is, frankly, one to take pride in. The defenseman set personal scoring records, dramatically increased his time on ice and most importantly, upped his value to the Nashville Predators in a big way.
Following an up-and-down rookie season in 2013-14 that saw the Swede notch a single goal while skating on the Preds third defensive pairing, Ekholm was often labeled as a fringe defender with some offensive ability. Eighty-two games later (plus six more in the postseason), and Nashville General Manager David Poile described the blueliner as “vastly underrated,” “solid” and a huge part of the Predators defensive corps. Now that’s quite a turnaround.
Ekholm and defensive partner Ryan Ellis gelled as unit right from the start of the 2014-15 season and rose to the team’s second D-pairing, contributing more than 20 minutes of time on ice per night rather rapidly. Expecting the two young D-men to provide even more on both sides of the puck next season is quite reasonable.
Signed for the 2015-16 season, Ekholm enters the latter half of his two-year deal in his second season under Head Peter Laviolette and the new offensive system he blossomed in during the last campaign.
One of my strongest memories from the 2014-15 season comes from an early preseason game. I recall watching Mattias Ekholm play his first few shifts in that particular game and saying to myself, “Oh my, ‘Matty' has added something to his game…he’s come back to camp a faster, stronger and more confident player.”
- Ekholm took a huge step forward in his development from the 2013-14 campaign to this most recent season. He went from being a fifth or sixth defender playing minutes in the mid-teens (in terms of his time on ice) to being a top four D-man who was relied upon for 20-plus minutes night in and night out.
- The 25-year-old Swede is big, strong and fast. These attributes allow him to hold the opponent’s top six forwards at bay when defending.
- Additionally, it turns out Ekholm is a terrific fit for the system implemented by Head Coach Peter Laviolette where defenders are encouraged to activate up into the play at will. Ekholm showed great instincts in this aspect of the game and contributed offense at key times throughout last season.
Ekholm splits between two defenders, falls and lifts a puck past Carey Price from his knees:
According to No. 14:
- The defenseman says The Shawshank Redemption is his favorite movie, calls Avicii his top musician and considers Denzel Washington to be his No. 1 actor.
- The Palm is his Nashville restaurant of choice, and Nicklas Lidstrom is his favorite player to watch.
- His hidden talent is being skilled at computer games, and his guilty pleasure is the Swedish dish smågodis and potato chips.
By the Numbers:
- 19 - Ekholm averaged 19:00 minutes on ice this season, a jump of more than two minutes from his numbers in the 2013-14 season as a rookie.
- 14 - To start out the 2014-15 season, the defenseman changed his sweater number from 42 to 14.
- 11 - The Swede dished out 11 helpers to go with seven goals this season, both new career highs (1g-8a in 2013-14).
In December, the rise of Ekholm and defensive partner Ellis was starting to look less and less like a fluke. The blueliners, still in their early 20s, were perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of Laviolette’s on-ice structure allowing them to cycle in the offensive zone, and yet it was a focus on defense first that accelerated their growth the most.
Both blueliners have been pigeonholed as offensive-only defensemen early in their careers, but the pair agree that their role in Nashville’s D corps has expanded due to their growth on the defensive side of the puck.
“I think we’ve been sound defensively, and that’s what we put first in our game,” Ekholm said. “We try to put defense first before offense and never cheat. In every situation, we help each other out and cover for the other one...I think in the past we were only supposed to be ‘offensive guys,’ but that has changed.”
“Overall, I think we’re developing into the two-way defensemen our team needs,” Ellis said. “Ekholm skates well and makes good plays up ice. I think we both make good first passes and we get excited to join the rush. We’re both two guys that like to jump and join the rush, but we know defense has to come first.”
The pair’s place in Nashville’s defense wouldn’t be nearly as significant if the unit as a whole wasn’t thriving, pacing the Preds to a goals-against average of 1.96 per game - the best mark in the NHL. Like Ellis said, the focus on defensive zone responsibility has fast tracked the maturation process of the pairing who are now a two-way threat for their team.
With a 23-year-old Ellis and Ekholm at 24, this level of production from players of their age is not something many NHL teams hold.
“They’re just both good, young players and they keep getting better,” Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “When you play more minutes, that comfort and confidence level rises, and I can see that from them. When they’re on the ice, they’re making plays and strong first passes. They’re working to keep it simple, but when they can use their speed and their skill then they do…With both of those guys it’s really easy [for us to work together] because they talk so much, and they want to help the other one on the ice. It’s fun to watch those guys play.”
- Sixty-three games into the 2014-15 season, Ekholm had already established new career highs for goals and assists, but it was the defensive side of his game that caught his coach’s eye the most. Ekholm Finding Success In the Numbers - March 4
- With all the focus on the new offensive elements added to the Predators game, defensive prowess (including that of Ekholm and Ellis) was often what earned the team the majority of their wins early in the season. Defensive Consistency Bringing Wins to Nashville - Nov. 3
- The Swedish defenseman shares why he wanted to change his jersey number prior to the start of the 2014-15 season. Ekholm Shortens Summer; Changes Number - Sept. 11
Social Media Moments:
Ekholm shows the result of a heavy hit he took at the 2015 World Championship.
More Swedish adventures during the recent World Championship in Prague, Czech Republic. No other caption needed:
Three of the Preds Swedish players take time for a quick bike ride during a California road trip.
Ekholm and fellow Swede Filip Forsberg caught a final tune-up prior to the start of the regular season by taking on dozens of street hockey enthusiasts in Franklin, Tennessee, including the Preds Brian Campbell (Director of Event Presentation) and myself.
Top 5 Photos: