Nashville Predators: Mattias Ekholm the Unsung Hero of First Half

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 27: Mattias Ekholm #14 of the Nashville Predators shoots the puck against the Dallas Stars at Bridgestone Arena on December 27, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 27: Mattias Ekholm #14 of the Nashville Predators shoots the puck against the Dallas Stars at Bridgestone Arena on December 27, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images) /

You won’t find many players more underappreciated than Mattias Ekholm. He’s quietly leading the Nashville Predators in many ways.

The Nashville Predators have weathered a bunch of storms over the course of the first half of the season. They’re now at the All-Star break and tied with the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Central Division. Both have 64 points, but the Jets have four games in hand.

It’s quite remarkable that the Predators didn’t slip further back in the standings after a horrendous month of December that had so many key players out with injury. They found a way to stay competitive and scratch their way to some gritty wins. You can point to a handful of players that contributed to that cause.

None rise to the top more than Mattias Ekholm when thinking about players who have elevated their game. He’s been the constant and steady contributor that still somehow gets overlooked. Maybe not by the diehard Predators fan, but the casual ones probably don’t appreciate him enough.

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Ekholm ascending into elite status?

You can’t throw around the word “elite” carelessly. It’s a term reserved for the best of the best. When it comes to Ekholm, he’s certainly trending at a rapid pace towards that distinction. He’s not there yet, but it’s fun watching him grow into such a consistent performer.

Ekholm is already shattering a host of career-high numbers this season, including points and assists. He’s four assists past his previous career high of 27 in a season and two points past his 35-point total when he played a full 82-game season in 2015-16. This evolution of his game is most impressive. He’s blossoming into a smart offensive player, giving the Predators yet another defenseman who can push the offensive attack.

The numbers that really matter are obviously on the defensive end. Even from his early seasons I knew that Ekholm would be another great defenseman in a pipeline of great ones that have come through this organization. He’s been a full-time player for the Predators since 2013-14, and his plus/minus rating has been positive for five-straight seasons now.

Perhaps Ekholm’s best part of his game that we’re no stranger to is his ability to block shots and be physical on attackers. He doesn’t give up much space and makes skaters work hard for space on the ice. He’s on pace to finish around 115 blocked shots, which would put him right near another career high. His hit total and takeaways are also up from previous seasons. In other words, he’s currently in the midst of a breakout season in many different categories.

His chances for the Norris Trophy

There is a lot of stiff competition every year for this award for the league’s best all-around defenseman. Ekholm is a newcomer to this party, but he deserves a spot at the table. He already has two teammates, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, who are regularly in this race. But is Ekholm even ahead of his own teammates when considering candidates for this award?

Now at the All-Star break, Ekholm has the most points on the team among defenseman with 37, and is second on the team, only behind Ryan Johansen. That total is good enough to put him in the top ten in the NHL. It’s not just an offensive award, but trailing San Jose’s Brent Burns by just 18 points for the NHL lead is impressive. Burns, Erik Karlsson, John Carlson and Mark Giordano are front-runners for the award.

If Ekholm keeps trending like he is, he will be in the conversation for some votes. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment for a player that was more seen as a role player just a few seasons ago.

One area that is holding Ekholm back among the NHL’s elite defenseman is his lack of production on the power player. The Predators have had a putrid power play all season, and Ekholm doesn’t really contribute in that area with just six points with the man advantage. All of the other defenseman ahead of him are regular contributors on the power play.

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Mentioning Ekholm in terms of the Norris Trophy is more about his chances in future seasons to win the award. If he keeps improving his game at the same rate he’s at now, becoming a Norris Trophy finalist in future seasons is a real possibility. I’ve enjoyed watching Ekholm develop into the player he is, and his importance to the Predators is at an all-time high.