Playing in his third year of full time duty as a Nashville Predator, much of Ekholm’s career has been described as “being part of a great defensive unit.” He is rapidly changing that narrative by becoming an integral piece of what makes Nashville’s blueline so successful on a nightly basis.
Yes, two goals in the team’s last outing make it an easier case to make, but the writing has been on the wall for longer than most people realize. Before this season, the team leading possession numbers alongside Ryan Ellis gave validity to his play even against lesser competition. Now, he’s leading the second pair with the newly acquired Petter Granberg and not missing a beat.
There’s little to not love about Ekholm’s game and physical attributes. At 6’4, his skating greatly exceeds almost everyone at similar stature and playing at each end of the ice has come second nature. Previously, power play time was nonexistent due to the overwhelming talent on the blueline. The departure of Seth Jones opened the door to a deserved opportunity.
The offensive production is only going to rise at even strength if the stay at home Granberg continues to hold the position to the right of Ekholm. While Ekholm still jumped into the play with Ellis by his side, the onus was on the big Swede to proceed with caution while his very offensive partner attempted to create offense.
Ekhom has the ability to play each style of defense, and that can’t be overlooked when analyzing him as a player. You’d be hard pressed to find a situation in a game where he would be at a disadvantage. Holding a lead? Fine, his big body and good stick positioning can do the job. Need a goal? No problem. Great skating ability in transition coupled with good vision can create an opportunity at the opposition goal.
Ekholm is an A- Victor Hedman if he was given the same responsibility as the Lightning defender. Hedman is considered an elite defenseman around the NHL community, so that’s quite the compliment for Ekholm. But it isn’t a hyperbole. Both are averaging pretty similar positive possession numbers with Hedman leading the point total 28 to 20 and more than 3 minutes of average ice time per game. If the two switch roles, the difference would be minimal or not noticeable at all.
There’s no doubt a bigger role is in store for Mattias with the Predators trading away Jones. Poile likely doesn’t pull the trigger on the deal for Johansen if Ekholm hadn’t developed into such a strong player on the backend. The bargain deal of a six year extension at just $3.75 million AAV will reap benefits for the entirety of the contract. Roman Josi might have the most cap friendly deal in the entire league, but Ekholm’s contract will be looked at with similar admiration if he continues at this rate.
Nashville lost a blossoming defenseman with the blockbuster trade a couple weeks ago, but assets like Ekholm soften the blow. Don’t be surprised when his name starts to gain traction in discussions of great defenseman around the league as the years go by and his opportunity to earn that distinction increases.