The Nashville Predators have one of the best pure defensive defensemen in Mattias Ekholm. But how does he stack up against the gold standard of the NHL?
Before I begin, let me start off by mentioning that I grew up in San Jose as a Sharks fan. But let me assure you, the Sharks have beaten any fandom out of me that may have lingered. Even my fandom ceased, I still held two things dear to my heart. Joe Thornton, the best playmaker of his generation, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the best defensive defenseman in the NHL.
The moniker of defensive defenseman has been given out freely over the past 10 years. Moreso, if a defender didn’t produce on offense, he was seen as more focused on the defensive side of the puck. The best, or worse, example of this was Dan Girardi, who was hailed as an elite defensive defenseman because he blocked shots in a John Tortorella system. But through advanced analytics, or as I call them, facts, we’ve been given a better look into who suppresses shots and goals, and who’s just not good on either side of the puck.
Over the last two years, Mattias Ekholm has become one of the NHL’s premier defensive defensemen, especially when accompanied by P.K. Subban. But where does Ekholm rank among the likes of Hampus Lindholm, Chris Tanev, Jaccob Slavin, and most importantly, how does he stack up among the best of them all, Marc-Edouard Vlasic? For reference, all stats are in five on five situations, unless otherwise stated.
So far through the season, Vlasic has 7 points while Ekholm has 15. That’s a pretty clear win in Ekholm’s favor, but there are certain factors to consider. Ekholm is currently playing somewhat sheltered minutes against middle six talent alongside Roman Josi, who is one of the premier shot producing defensemen in the world. Meanwhile, Vlasic consistently eats the toughest minutes that opposing teams throw at him while playing alongside Justin Braun. No disrespect to Braun, but he’s no Josi.
The stat I keep coming back to is zone deployment. The Nashville Predators will never throw Ekholm to the wolves because of Josi. Josi has been sheltered through much of his career and it makes sense. If a player is an offensive dynamo, then put him in a position to score, aka the offensive zone. Nevertheless, Ekholm starts in the offensive zone 45.98% of the time. By no means sheltered, but not too far outside of average. His deployment in the defensive zone has grown over the past few games as the third pairing has displayed defensive ineptitude. That almost 46% looks like a cake walk compared to Vlasic’s deployment though, as he starts in the offensive zone 41.04% of the time.
With this context in mind, let’s dive a little deeper into their more advanced stats.
Vlasic currently has a Corsi of 46.64% and a Fenwick of 50.12%. Meanwhile, Ekholm has a Corsi of 52.26% and a Fenwick of 51.41%. Below average for Vlasic and above average for Ekholm, but there’s more to the story. What’s curious to me is how much Vlasic’s Fenwick jumps while Ekholm’s takes a step down. It’s actually very common to see a Fenwick be lower than a Corsi and so Ekholm’s stats aren’t out of the ordinary.
To fully understand, Ekholm has a Corsi For (CF) of 404 and Corsi Against (CA) of 369, while he also has a Fenwick For (FF) of 292 and a Fenwick Against (FA) of 276. What I’m gathering from this is that while Ekholm’s line is generating a ton of shots, about 28% of them are blocked. Meanwhile, in the defensive zone, Ekholm and his line aren’t cutting off angles and are giving up shots. With Vlasic, it’s a totally different case. He has a CF of 285 and a CA of 326, with an FF of 212 and an FA of 211. The clear takeaway is that Vlasic and Braun are getting in front of shots and blocking them. Stopping 100 shot attempts from getting to the net is quite the accomplishment, especially against other team’s top talent.
While Ekholm is producing more on the offensive and shooting way more, Vlasic is doing more on defense to stifle shooting opportunities. But quantity isn’t the only important factor, as the Nashville Predators know, quality matters quite a bit.
It’s one thing to suppress chances, but it’s another to suppress high danger chances. Vlasic has been on the ice for 59 high danger chances against (HDCA) and 7 high danger goals against (HDGA). Including non-high danger chances, Vlasic has been on the ice for 10 goals against. Meanwhile, Ekholm has 61 HDCA and 8 HDGA, with 17 goals against in total.
Just off the bat, you’ll notice that Ekholm has been on the ice for more high danger chances, high danger goals, and goals in general.
Bear with me here, because we’re diving into rates, most notably per/60’s. This is where we can see who’s producing the best. For reference, Vlasic plays on average 15 min per night at five on five while Ekholm plays 16:40 min per night on average. So we can assume that it takes about four games for each player to play a full 60 minutes.
Vlasic produces .55 points per 60 minutes while Ekholm so far has produced .94 points per/60. What that means is Vlasic putting up a point about every seven or eight games or so, while Ekholm is putting one up every four games or so. To close out offense, Ekholm is generating 3.91 shots/60, at almost one per game. While Vlasic is actually producing 4.02/60, surprisingly good numbers.
Now, getting down to what really matters. Vlasic is giving up 1.64 goals/60 while Ekholm is giving up 2.66/60. That’s almost a full goal differential as Vlasic is giving up a little over a goal against per four games. Meanwhile, Ekholm is doubling that. In Ekholm’s defense, he is paired with Josi who’s a bit weak in his own zone. But his sheltered minutes should be helping these numbers more than they seemingly are.
How should you feel after this barrage of numbers?
Pretty good actually. While Ekholm may not measure up to Vlasic, he’s still a giant among men. There is good news on the horizon. January marks the re-emergence of the P.K. Subban – Ekholm line. Ekholm is a great suppressor and Subban is no slouch himself. The two side by side will kick off a new reign of terror on the first lines of the NHL. While I believe that Vlasic is the best defensive defenseman in the NHL, I do think Subban and Ekholm make up the best shutdown pair in the league.