2018-2019 Player Reviews: Mattias Ekholm

The hidden gem of the Nashville defensive corps, he stole the puck, stole a few goals, and along the way—stole our heart

I have a similar struggle doing this report card for Mattias Ekholm as I did doing the one for Nick Bonino: I have to overcome a very strong personal bias.  My negative bias against Bonino was pretty similar in strength to my positive bias towards Ekholm.  I love Mattias Ekholm.

I have a responsibility, though, to try and judge these players fairly, so wish me luck while I try not to start the Ekholm fan club mid-review.

The Report Card

The Positives

  • His defense:  Ekholm had a tremendous year playing defense.  And while P.K. Subban being his defense partner definitely didn’t hurt, Ekholm’s defense suffered very little when playing alongside different teammates./
  • Measuring just his isolated impact, you can see that the team plays defense 6% better than at league average when he is on the ice. But this has to adjust for the other four players around him—so there are a lot of combinations you might see alongside him, so we’ll narrow it down. Ekholm and Subban played about 875 minutes together this season (the next closest defender was Dan Hamhuis with ~350). Together on the ice, they pushed team defense to 3% better than team average. But what happens when you separate them from one another?/
  • Yes, there is a TOI difference, as Ekholm played triple the amount of time without Subban than Subban did without Ekholm, but the difference in impact is large enough that I can’t imagine Subban going from being 40% worse on defense to 11% better if he had more time.
  • The other players Ekholm shared the most time with were Colton Sissons and Nick Bonino.  As covered in the Bonino report card, the players were strong defensively individually and together, but while Sissons and Bonino got worse if you removed one or both of his teammates, Ekholm stood steady—his impact was only affected minimally.  /
  • The fellas at Evolving Wild created a descriptive statistic called Regularized, Adjusted Plus-Minus, or RAPM for short.  In short, this essentially looks at the effect of the player being on or off the ice, if all other things are held constant.  This includes the state of the game, home/away, zone start, etc., but also looks at the impact of the other players on the ice (offensively and defensively)—the theory is that if nothing else I listed above changed you can measure the impact the player themselves had.  For example, in the above charts, you can see that the value of Def_CF (Defensive Corsi against, technically) is Ekholm’s biggest advantage.  Just by virtue of stepping on the ice, Ekholm increases the league-wide Def_CF higher than over 98% of the other players in the league.  Taking into account all the different types of situations, competition and teammates, Ekholm is suppressing shots at an elite level./
  • These RAPM values are a component of Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  At even strength, two of those RAPM values are important—for offense it is Off_GF, and defense it is Def_xG (I went into the reasoning in the Bonino piece).  Of the four top defensemen, Ekholm also suppresses shot quality nearly as well as shots (better than around 96% of the NHL).  This helps explain why Ekholm’s GAR/WAR values remain near the top of the team—he has been one of the top three players in terms of GAR three out of the last four seasons.  And nowhere is it more evident at even-strength (the dark blue box on the chart): Ekholm adds 11 goals at even strength over a replacement-level player, 15th in the league among defenders.  He’s also 10th in the league in reducing quality of shots (xGA) in the same group of peers.
  • His offense is improving too. He finished with a career-high 41 points this season, 31 of which were at even-strength (good for fifth on the team).  The RAPM charts above also indicate his presence on the ice increased goal-scoring at even-strength at the same level as Ryan Ellis—my theory is that Ekholm’s skill breaking up entry passes and forcing bad shots enables Nashville to break out down the ice quicker.  /

The Negatives

  • His offense isn’t that great though, with only five goals and a 4% shooting percentage at even-strength.  But his role isn’t to be a shot-happy goal scorer or playmaker like Josi, Ellis or Subban, so this is something I can overlook, especially with a career high in points.
  • His great defensive impact at even-strength should mean that he is a great penalty killer as well, right?  Not really.  While on the ice, Ekholm gave up 7.02 goals against per 60 (6th on the team) on the PK, performing worse than Josi, Ellis, Hamhuis, and the members of the JOFA line.  His shot suppression was better, though, moving up to fourth on the team in that respect.
  • He’s also a non-factor on the power play, but 1) he’s not a scorer and 2) he played the fourth-fewest minutes on the team and 3) everyone is bad on the PP.  On the bright side, while his rates/60 were very low, he did score 2 PP goals this season, which is half of the team lead of 4.
  • The last negative I’ll save for Worst Moment./

Best Moment

Being the analytics nerd I am, I wanted to stay away from a highlight like this game-winning goal in overtime against the Stars, taking a great Kyle Turris pass and roofing it against Ben Bishop.  Defense? THAT wouldshow how much of his game I know. I could link entire games such as one of the two shutouts against Toronto, or something similar.  But then I remembered something even better—something so rare, so unique, that getting to witness it was a privilege that we may never again experience.

Isn’t it beautiful?  Synchronized beat-downs have something just so pleasing to the soul about them.

Worst Moment

Ekholm picked the absolute worst time of the season to have a complete and total meltdown: the playoff series against Dallas.  There were very, very few bright moments for him, but there sure were a lot of bad ones.  I’ll spare you video reminders, but his six-game playoff performance consisted of twelve penalty minutes (a penalty per game compared to 0.29 per game in the season), only two assists and no goals, and he was on the ice for nine of Dallas’ 18 goals in the series.  It was the lowest point by far of an otherwise career-best season.

2019-2020 Outlook

Mattias Ekholm has been improving every year, and his offensive game is starting to go from awful to average while his defense remains elite.  There’s a very big question though—how will he do without P.K. Subban, with whom he had his best three seasons?  It’s unclear if he’ll play with Fabbro this season in a majority of defensive minutes, or if they give the rookie more favorable matchups, and we get to see Ekholm with Josi or Ellis.  Personally, I think that Ellis and Ekholm compliment each other quite well and would love to see that pairing.

Final Grade

A-  I tried, you guys, I tried looking every which way to give him a B, but I just couldn’t do it.  His playoff performance alone drops him down to an A-, but he did so well all season that it won’t go any lower.  He’s becoming an elite defender, and with Subban gone, he might get more than 13% OZ starts, and who knows how he’ll perform?  He’s not the flashy captain, or the playmaking Ellis, or a superstar like Subban.  But I would argue Mattias Ekholm is the most essential defenseman on this team—and with his ability to suppress shots and shot quality, I imagine that Pekka Rinne would probably agree.

Fan Grade

How would you grade Mattias Ekholm’s season?