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The ever-evolving Mattias Ekholm is finally getting paid like a franchise defender in 2022-23

Mattias Ekholm continued to evolve as one of the Predators’ franchise defenders in the 2021-22 season, but can he perform up to the level of his new $6.25 million deal?

Colorado Avalanche v Nashville Predators - Game Four Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

As we approach the start of the 2022-23 NHL season, On The Forecheck is taking an in-depth look at expectations for each Nashville Predators player for the new season. Today, we’re taking a look at Mattias Ekholm.

2021-22 Statistics: 76 games played, 6 goals, 25 assists, 31 points

5 on 5: 5 goals, 15 assists, 20 points - 48.9% Shot Attempt %, 48.3% Expected Goals %

2021-22 NHL Playoffs: 4 games played, 0 goals, 2 assists, 2 points - 5 on 5: 34.2% Shot Attempt %, 42.% Expected Goals %

Looking Back at the 2021-22 Season

Mattias Ekholm was extended by the Nashville Predators last October with a four-year, $6.25 million per year deal. The Swedish blueliner plays this upcoming season with a $2.5 million raise, and while his teammate Roman Josi has been squarely in the spotlight as of late, the evolution of Ekholm into a bonafide top pair NHL defenseman should not be overlooked.

The 32-year old defender has served a variety of roles in his eleven NHL seasons in Music City. Ekholm carved out a role as a strong defensive defenseman early in his career, and he began to shine as partner to P.K. Subban. Subban’s puck-moving ability allowed Ekholm to keep a defensive mindset, proving to be one of the top pairs in the league.

However, Subban is just a memory in Bridgestone Arena now, and Ekholm has taken on the veteran mentor role. Two years ago we saw Ekholm with young Dante Fabbro, and last season, Mattias Ekholm was partnered with one of the young bright spots of the team, Alexandre Carrier.

Mattias Ekholm 2022-23 Isolated Impact
Micah Blake McCurdy | HockeyViz.com

While Carrier has proven to be a playmaker in his own right, Ekholm’s game has changed to an effective mix of defensive stability and offensive generation. According to Micah Blake McCurdy of Hockeyviz.com, Ekholm’s “setting” ability - the ability to setup shot and develop plays for teammates, is a strong +4% - near the top of the league for defenseman to go along with his 31 points. Ekholm wasn’t a strong finisher in his own right, and his 6 goal output reflects that, but Carrier and Ekholm developed as one of the strongest defensive pairs on the team that had a wide usage in all situations.

Mattias Ekholm’s best game: 03-29-2022 vs Ottawa Senators (4-1 win): 3 assists, 3 points, 67% xGF%, 100% GF% (2 goals for, none against) at 5 on 5

While Michael McCarron made headlines with two goals in a late season matchup with the Eastern Conference’s Senators, Mattias Ekholm registered three assists on the night, including both secondary assists on McCarron’s goals. Ekholm was on ice against Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris for the majority of the night, and kept Ottawa scoreless at 5 on 5. Ekholm also played aggressively, notching two takeaways, two hits, one high-danger attempt and a rush attempt.

Ekholm’s Expectations for 2022-23

The upcoming season may bring a shakeup to the Ekholm-Carrier pairing, which had 770+ minutes together last season. The addition of veteran Ryan McDonagh could shake up the pairings - a pairing with McDonaugh may see a shift towards a more offensive game from Ekholm, but the Predators may be best served in allowing Ekholm to excel in his original area of strength - his defense.

Now that Mattias Ekholm is being paid north of $6 million, the team will expect Ekholm to perform like one. There’s no indication that General Manager David Poile or Head Coach John Hynes has any interest in changing Ekholm’s game based on last season, but the injection of McDonaugh into the lineup should allow Ekholm to succeed.

Mattias Ekholm Career Excess Value
Evolving-Hockey.com

However, Mattias Ekholm has done nothing but exceed expectations since his career began, posting nine straight seasons of providing excess value over his cap hit, including a career high +$14.8 million excess value in 2017-18 and +$9.4 million excess value last season. With a better supporting cast and a hopefully healthy Juuse Saros, Nashville should be seeing the peak of Mattias Ekholm’s career for a franchise with a rapidly dwindling Cup window.