Two big contracts loomed over the heads of Nashville Predators management over the offseason. First, the star forward of the team, Filip Forsberg, has a contract that is ending after the 2021-22 season. He will be an unrestricted free agent, and although there’s still time to re-sign him, his future is very vague.
The other contract that management needed to worry about completing was for star defenseman Mattias Ekholm. The deadline to sign him to an extension was the beginning of the season, as he did not want to worry about negotiations as everything was going on. They got the deal done. He signed a four-year deal worth $6.25 million in average annual value. The best part? It doesn’t kick in until after the season. Ekholm is still on an absolute bargain of a deal for the rest of the season.
After getting that obstacle out of the way, it provided Ekholm the ability to focus solely on the task at hand: leading a young Predators team through the ups and downs of an entire NHL season. He’s the token big guy with plenty of skill on the back end. He’s one of the more vocal leaders on the team, and with that comes expectations for his play. The problem is that he is not meeting those expectations.
Not an optimal start
When you sign a contract of that magnitude (even if it is viewed as somewhat of a bargain relative to what he would fetch on the open market), the play needs to reflect that management made the correct decision. Unfortunately, it has not.
For starters, just by the eye test, he appears invisible. Where he may have thrown his body around or created space by using his big frame last season, he seems far more passive this season. Outside of one memorable pass to Philip Tomasino against the Toronto Maple Leafs that sprung him for a breakaway, it’s hard to remember any other play he has made to create a goal. Two of his three assists are secondary, and his passing from the eye test has pretty much reflected that fact. Luckily, the defensive play and suppression of high-danger chances have been there. Although he hasn’t been the most visible on that end either, it’s probably a good thing considering it means he isn’t making many mistakes. The defensive zone is the area where being invisible to the eyes isn’t the worst outcome.
In the offensive zone, though? It’s a problem. In 18 games played, those three assists are the only points he has registered. Ekholm has no goals to his name, and without the stellar play of Roman Josi, the defense would be sorely lacking in the offensive department. The captain has had to pick up the slack without the help of Ryan Ellis, who made his way to the Philadelphia Flyers through a trade for Philippe Myers and Nolan Patrick (who was traded for Cody Glass). Ekholm is on pace for around 14 points on the season.
In terms of Ekholm’s analytics, his expected goals for percentage (xGF%) is 13th on the team at 47.97 percent. His goals for percentage (GF%) is lower at 40.31 percent. He sits 17th on the Predators in that regard. With 19 skaters being the size of the group, those certainly aren’t reassuring numbers. His goals above replacement (GAR) is 0.2, but it could be higher if his offense were better. He is 15th on the team in that category, but the problem lies with his expected goals above replacement (xGAR). Again, his defense is solid, but the offense makes his total take a huge hit. So much so that his overall total is minus-0.9. He ranks 21st overall in that category.
It’s not great for someone that the team just signed to a big contract. Your second-best defenseman playing at around replacement level to start a big transition season is not optimal for any team, especially the Predators.
What can be done?
For starters, I don’t think this is something that will be consistent with Ekholm. We’ve seen players start their seasons on a rough note and gradually come out of their slumps. We know what kind of player the big Swedish defenseman is, and even if he isn’t scoring every night, the character and leadership will continue to stand out. I mean, what would we do without the “olé, olé, olé” after every win?
I’d like to see Ekholm get a bit more physical, whether it’s in front of the net or the open ice. He’s on pace for around 43 hits in an 82 game season, which would be the lowest in any of the seasons he has played over 80 games. He’s at his best when he’s using his body to take advantage of the attacking player. That hasn’t been happening so far in 2021-22.
More physicality is also good, but creating time and space with the puck is better. Ekholm hasn’t appeared to be leading as many rushes with the puck, and that’s causing some issues with creating offense outside of Josi. Of course, this could be the reincarnation of the problems that happened when P.K. Subban was traded. Ekholm had to carry all of the duties on his shoulders. Being paired with a young Alexandre Carrier (even though he is talented offensively) and Matt Benning for most of the season can potentially stifle some offensive capabilities. He’s not moving his feet very well, and it is causing issues with his production.
Whatever the case may be for his current downtrend in play — may it be his physicality, his foot movement being worse than previous seasons, or just the players he is paired with — it’s something that needs to be resolved quickly. Josi can’t be the only defenseman scoring a substantial amount of points, and since he signed that significant extension at the relatively older age of 31, the slack has to be picked up. Everyone is behind him, especially the coaching staff and his teammates, and that’s the most important thing. Hopefully, we can see the old Ekholm back up and running soon.