Mattias Ekholm had one of the worst years of his absolutely stellar career in 2019-2020, and I say that as one of his biggest fans. He regressed in most areas of his game, especially in his defensive play, continuing a downward trend from the past two seasons by WAR and GAR.
You’d be forgiven for looking at this chart and a lot of other statistical profiles surrounding Ekholm’s year and saying “welp, looks like he’s on the decline.” This year wasn’t a very favorable look for him by the eye test at points either, at least on the surface, but that’s why I’m here to illuminate the deeper causes behind the seeming regression Ekholm experienced this year. I’m of the opinion that he actually grew a lot as a player this season but had some outside factors that prevented him from truly showing out. Let me break down the different facets of his game to show y’all what I mean.
Ekholm isn’t known as an offensive dynamo or an especially skilled puck carrier, and for good reason; he clearly isn’t at his most comfortable when he’s the guy driving transition or shot generation on a pair. The former is something that made his tandem with P.K. Subban especially excellent; Subban could take care of most of the exit opportunities with a high level of success, allowing Ekholm to play his typically reserved game and hang back.
With Subban’s departure, Ekholm got paired with rookie Dante Fabbro, who was... less than good on offense, given that he had the 19th-worst offensive impact of any skater in the NHL this year (minimum 500 TOI). Fabbro also wasn’t exactly great in transition by the numbers, only ranking ahead of Jarred Tinordi (probably not an NHL starter this upcoming season) and Dan Hamhuis (retired) out of the Nashville defenders.
With all of that said, Ekholm was instantly pushed out of his comfort zone and did quite well, grading out well above average through the neutral zone. Despite his partner’s poor puck-moving ability, the Swede produced a very solid offensive value of 4.4 GAR, comparable to Shea Theodore and Shea Weber; that’s pretty impressive. Ekholm also posted career bests in CF/60 and xGF/60 at even strength, again suggesting that he took his offensive game up a level to compensate for Fabbro’s rookie ineptitude.
Ekholm finished the year shooting slightly above average, especially on wrist shots from the slot area, but actually got below average finishing on his slapshots (3.3 xG vs 2 G); his GF/60 and even strength points/60 were the third and second-best of his career despite this.
Overall, by most metrics Ekholm had a very nice offensive year that was actually sustainable, as opposed to his incredible 2018-2019 where he scored 44 points despite worse underlying numbers. This all came despite poor support from his most common linemate, making his accomplishments even more impressive. How did that impact his defense?
The biggest concern that most would have when looking at Ekholm’s analytical profile this year would be his defense. The “big Swedish redwood” (as Chris Mason calls him) had the worst defensive GAR of his career by a longshot, and his CA/60 and xGA/60 were similarly poor. This is the first season of Ekholm’s career where (by the numbers) it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him below replacement on defense.
For a player who is considered to be a stellar defensive defender, a profile that he’s matched for his entire career, that’s a disturbing development; this comes in conjunction with his age 30 season approaching and his contract set to expire at the end of the 2020-2021 season.
This is a precipitous drop in ability that can come for defensive defenders like Ekholm, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, or Niklas Kronwall, but it usually shows up much later in their career arcs. Ekholm’s recent downward trend in value is troubling, but his defense has remained excellent the past two years (second- and third-best by GAR in his career), so this doesn’t really follow that trajectory in a conventional sense. Still, this is something that you’d normally be very concerned about; that’s why I’m here to add some context.
Tale of the Tape
I spent around nine hours watching film of Ekholm for this report, and these are my main observations from that (with a few video clips spliced in).
Eamon’s Scouting Report
Plays with a bit of a physical edge, but doesn’t chase for hits; takes mostly smart gaps but could stand to be more aggressive in stepping up in the play; showed improvement in playing down low but isn’t exactly a plus player with the puck on his stick; solid passing vision and a nice shot, but defers to other players too often at times. Skating seems to have taken an extremely mild step back, with occasional lapses in crossovers and edgework, but nothing worrying; glaring issues with communication with his partner and a refusal to trust him to make the right play; uncharacteristically caught out of position numerous times as a result of miscommunication. Can be effective in transition, but clearly isn’t comfortable in the role of primary puck mover.
Let’s break this down, piece by piece.
Ekholm was a pretty physically active player for Nashville. While he didn’t lay out opposing players, he did a good job of playing the body and providing tight checking, effectively sealing gaps and knocking guys off of the puck. Ekholm definitely isn’t a guy who will catch your eyes with a big open ice hit, but he’s sneaky good as a physical presence and that was true this year as well. While you could argue that the big Swede could be using his imposing frame to be a tone-setter rather than a “quietly good” checking defender, there isn’t a ton to critique here.
Gapping Up and General Defense
Ekholm continues to be very good at judging his gaps and dealing with the variety of ways that skaters can attack in the modern NHL. In these matchups I rarely saw him get beat wide with speed, and his naturally wide and sweeping stance along with his fluid hips and disciplined stickwork show why he’s considered one of the best defensive defenders in the NHL. His positioning through the neutral zone regressed a bit from last year, but I felt that had a lot to do with his newfound role as a more aggressive player and puck carrier, and it wasn’t anything egregious.
The problems with Ekholm in terms of reading the play and his leverage came when Dante Fabbro had to make key decisions or individual plays, which I’ll discuss more in depth later. Many of Ekholm’s lapses were because he was trying too hard to be puck support for the young blueliner, rather than covering his man or effectively pushing wingers wide into the wall.
On the penalty kill Ekholm was also a bit too keen to remain in his shell at times, and while I respect his resistance to overcommitting (take notes, Jarred Tinordi) he could stand to be a bit more aggressive given his status as an incredible defensive force, especially on a penalty kill as bad as Nashville’s.
Stickhandling, Transition and General Offense
Ekholm was forced into a more offensive role this year and was surprisingly effective in it, despite it clearly being out of his comfort zone. His wrist shot isn’t special for an NHL defender, but it’s still quite good and he graded out as a plus shooter, especially from the slot (despite not being used there nearly enough). His slapshot generated plenty of chances as well, but despite it being a visibly better tool he finished on his opportunities at a worse clip, likely due to his xG largely being based in high-volume, low-danger shots from the point.
Where I really saw a marked improvement from Ekholm was in transition; a player who rarely ever carried the puck suddenly became the second most effective defender on the team at doing so, and in a very interesting way. Rather than using the “Roman Josi method” of using slick edgework and stickhandling to create controlled entries and exits, Ekholm opted to bully his way past checking with his size and puck protection ability, commanding defenders and opening up passing lanes. He had success completing the initial pass that this allowed and coming back up the wall to complete the entry, which was a slightly unorthodox but still useful way to create meaningful transition. He still relied too heavily on drop passes, but I enjoyed watching him figuring out how to use his reach and big frame to efficiently get the puck out of the zone.
Ekholm could still stand to improve as a skill player, but at this point in his career he probably isn’t ever going to be what you’d refer to as “dynamic.” His main skills are shot and chance suppression, and if he happens to pull off a dangle every 20 games or so, that’s really all you can ask for.
Ekholm has always been a solid skater, but a lot of his recovery ability has more to do with his huge reach and the amount of ice he can cover when playing his gaps. This year, there were a few times where his edgework looked a little sloppy or he failed to hang with a speedster in a one-on-one situation, but those were rare and didn’t really concern me; no defender is going to be perfect. His crossover step could also slow him up on rare occasions if he was pressured while covering back, but again it was extremely minor and I’m basically nitpicking here.
The Dante Fabbro Dilemma
Now we get what I’ve been building to: Dante Fabbro was an awful partner for Ekholm this year, and the two of them contributed heavily to each others’ shortcomings. Their stylistic matchup was poor, Fabbro was rough on the whole as a player and was one of the worst rookies in the NHL by underlying numbers this year, and the large majority of the pair’s mistakes were because the rookie was cleanly beat, taken out of the play, or caught puck watching, or else because he and Ekholm clearly weren’t communicating well on the ice. How much of that is Ekholm’s fault is a bit murky to me, but a lot of the time watching these games and all of the games this season it felt more like he was trying too hard to clean up after Fabbro rather than vice versa.
I worry about having Fabbro on the second pair this upcoming season for this reason. The second pair shouldn’t be two players constantly backing off of opposing forwards and allowing free zone entries until giving up a goal, especially if one of the two defenders is inexperienced and getting beat on simple dekes with alarming frequency.
Ekholm had a down year by defensive metrics and by the eyes in his own end, but I really don’t think much of that owes to his individual play. Did he make the occasional bad read? Yes. Was that enough to warrant a negative defensive GAR and isolated impact? Absolutely not.
Final Grade: B+
I’d probably have to give Ekholm a solid B+ on the year for his individual performance, given how his partners and his discomfort as an offensive force played into odd man rushes or failures in coverage. Despite having a poor year by his standards, #14 was still one of the better defenders in the league. What do y’all think? Let me know in the poll below.
How would you grade Mattias Ekholm for the 2019-2020 season?
This poll is closed
- January 16, 2020: NSH vs ANA
- October 29, 2019: NSH vs CHI
- October 10, 2019: NSH vs WSH
- October 31, 2019: NSH vs CGY
- February 16, 2020: NSH vs STL
- March 2, 2020: NSH vs EDM
- November 30, 2019: NSH vs FLA
- November 29, 2019: NSH vs CAR
- August 5, 2020: NSH vs ARI
All data via evolving-hockey.com and hockeyviz.com.