Beginning the season where he left off on the number two defensive pairing with Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm evolved from being a simple reliable option on the blue line to a dynamic defenseman who will represent Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey. Ekholm was incredibly consistent on the ice. Rarely would he drift out of position, showcasing his strong defensive awareness and fundamentals.
However, the difference between the Mattias Ekholm of last season and the Mattias Ekholm of this year was the poise that he developed. Ekholm oozed confidence whenever he was playing the puck, which translated directly into vast improvement in his overall play. Were it not for Ekholm's continued development, the Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen trade may not have been possible.
Courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com
It is one thing for a young, good player to take on additional responsibilities. It is quite another thing for such a player to make their new responsibilities look effortless. Afte Jones was traded and Ekholm was permanently promoted to the second defensive pairing. Not only did he succeed, but Ekholm evolved into an international star.
An indicator of his talent is his IPP, or the percent of goals scored while Ekholm was on ice that he contributed to. Ekholm was part of 41.4% of Nashville's goals while on the ice, leading both his partner, Ellis, and captain Shea Weber in that statistic.
It is easy to overlook Ekholm on a team where defensive excellence is a dime a dozen, but if you want evidence of how tremendous of a talent he has become, look no further than Sweden's World Cup of Hockey roster. John Klingberg, Dallas' number one defenseman who posted 58 points this last season, did not make the team. Instead, Ekholm earned the last spot on Sweden's defense over Klingberg. Nashville may be spoiled by the tremendous depth and talent of their defense, but elsewhere in the hockey world, people realize that Ekholm is an incredible talent.
If Ekholm was on nearly any other team, he would be on the top defensive pairing.
Best moment of the season?
While he played well during the regular season, Ekholm demonstrated the poise that top tier players possess in the playoffs.
Numerous times, Ekholm was spotted deep in the offensive zone with the puck. He simply would take his time in the zone, cruising around and biding his time. He was not trying to find a good play, but rather to find the right play. Game six in the playoff series against Anaheim really showcased this, as Ekholm circled around the entire offensive zone simply biding his time and looking for the perfect play.
That perfect play ended up being a wrist shot from the point that found its way into the net.
Additionally, Ekholm was responsible for the first 3-on-3 overtime victory in franchise history. In a game against the Carolina Hurricanes that was much tougher than it should have been, Filip Forsberg made a nice pass to Ekholm to end the game without needing a shootout to decide the victor.
Worst moment of the season?
It really is a challenge to pick out bad moments for Ekholm. He does not take bad penalties, he is fundamentally sound, and he does not break down under pressure. Perhaps his worst moment of the season was a rough check to Justin Abelkader on December 5th, where he took both cross checking and a roughing penalties on a dangerous hit. Other than that moment though, he has been disciplined and in control.
Trending up or down?
Trending Up. Coming into the season, many were unsure of what Ekholm's skill ceiling was. Perhaps he was viewed as a reliable second pairing option, but his evolution this season showed that he has the ability to be a number two defenseman for nearly any team in the league.
FINAL GRADE: A
Ekholm was awarded an A in last year's report card and he is given one again this year. In continuing his development, he is no longer simply admired by Predator fans, but by the greater hockey community as a whole. While he may not be the most talked about defenseman on the Predators' roster, he is absolutely an integral component in a team that looks ready to take a run at the Stanley Cup.
Additionally, just look at him in the video below during a mess of a game against the Winnipeg Jets. Around 1:12 he exhibits outstanding "Scoreboard!" form when confronting Mark Scheifele. He certainly earns an 'A' in chirping.