Nashville Predators Grades: Mattias Ekholm Falls Off

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 26: St. Louis Blues' Mackenzie MacEachern, center, is held back by Nashville Predators' Mattias Ekholm and linesman Pierre Racicot, right, during the second period of an NHL hockey game between the St. Louis Blues and the Nashville Predators on February 26, 2019, at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 26: St. Louis Blues' Mackenzie MacEachern, center, is held back by Nashville Predators' Mattias Ekholm and linesman Pierre Racicot, right, during the second period of an NHL hockey game between the St. Louis Blues and the Nashville Predators on February 26, 2019, at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

In the roughest year the Predators have had in recent memory, Mattias Ekholm was a tangible factor for why the drop-off occurred.

Man, am I sad that I have to write this piece. It brings me no pleasure to talk negatively about Mattias Ekholm; he is, after all, my favorite Nashville Predator of all time. But for the sake of objectivity, I’m going to have to do just that.

For the past few years, defensive depth and quality have always been strengths for the Nashville Predators. Stars like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi were complemented by excellent, underrated players in Ekholm and Ryan Ellis.

But with the departure of Subban in this past offseason and the replacement of him with an unproven piece in Dante Fabbro, it created some uncertainty about the construction of this part of the roster for the first time in many years.

I was especially concerned for Ekholm, who would lose a partner who matched him perfectly in Subban for a relatively untested and seemingly ill-fitting youngster. I hoped I’d be wrong, like I was about Juuse Saros a while ago; sadly, I wasn’t.

Ekholm suffered massive regression this season after having a career year. I want to take a brief look at why that occurred, and then I’ll explain his grade for this season.

The impact of a new partner

I absolutely hate blaming or crediting defensive partners for the majority of a player’s success. It’s frankly reductive and rarely does the other player justice, unless half of the pairing is clearly dragging the other down.

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But sometimes, two players just aren’t a good stylistic fit for one another, and they mutually damage their success. Such is the case with Ekholm and Fabbro, two highly defensive defensemen.

Before Subban arrived, Ekholm played mostly with Ellis. Ellis was an extremely effective puck mover, as he has always been, which played well with Ekholm’s extremely conservative, defense-first mentality.

Still, Ellis had his flaws at this time; he wasn’t a great player in transition, and he and Ekholm would sometimes have issues breaking out or moving play through center. While a solid pairing, each player had another gear to unlock. Enter: Pernell Karl Subban.

Subban and Josi are not too similar of players. Josi is far smoother, and Subban (in his prime) was flashier with his play and personality. However, the pair had two major things in common when they shared a team; they excelled at driving play, and they were elite in transition.

When you combine that with two positionally sound defenders in Ellis and Ekholm, you get fireworks and dominance. As soon as Subban and Ekholm (and Josi and Ellis) were paired, every player benefited.

Ekholm had career years because he had someone breaking play out of the zone for him with regularity, and Ellis got the same from Josi (although No.4 has become an elite transition player himself).

What’s my point with all of this? Well, Fabbro is very much the opposite of Subban. While Subban was elite at zone exits and entries, Fabbro hasn’t flashed the same ability in this area.

Fabbro also stinks at driving play, posting some truly abysmal offensive numbers in both CF/60 and xGF/60. This, combined with his lack of experience, forces Ekholm to become the primary puck carrier and risk-taker on the pairing. That doesn’t end well, as we can see from Ekholm’s massive dip in almost all of his statistical categories.

In addition to Ekholm not functioning well in this role on offense, it has hurt his defensive numbers; he and Fabbro both tend to back off of puck carriers a lot, and while that’s good when half of your pair is aggressive, it sucks when you both do it.

The two allowed a lot of uncontested zone entries and conceded the playmaking zone below the goal line far too readily. When you allow your opponent into your end unopposed, you’ve already shortened their path to a goal from three steps to two; that’s not good, folks!

In short, I really don’t think that Ekholm is as bad as he’s been this year. While I’m giving him a harsh (and deserved) grade based on his current performance, I think all that needs to happen is the addition of a complementary defensive partner for both him and Fabbro.

If GM David Poile could pair Ekholm with say, Colin Miller, and Fabbro with pending UFA Dylan DeMelo, the defense would once again be absolutely lockdown. But until then, the two will likely continue to struggle, until either one adapts or they ultimately fail.

Grading stickwork, positioning and hockey IQ

These are the standard things I value for a defensive defender like Ekholm and his counterpart in Fabbro. I’ll go through each, one by one, and outline what I’ve seen that makes me issue the grade that I’ve given; I’ll also factor in play driving ability, which is usually a big indicator of a player’s impact.

Stickwork: B+

Ekholm’s stickwork has been well above average at all points during his time in Nashville, and it’s the one thing this year that he’s continued to do very well. Denying entries remains an elite part of his game, when he decides to challenge opposing players.

The only complaint I’d have here is that Ekholm can take some stick infraction penalties in inopportune times, but usually he’s successful and has a positive impact in this regard.

Positioning: D+

This is one of two aspects of Ekholm’s game that have been unacceptable. For a veteran, Ekholm just concedes the ice way too readily.

Between him and Fabbro, one of the two needs to step up and make a play, and frequently neither do. Ekholm needs to step back into his 2018-19 mentality and be confident in denying entries on a frequent basis; until he does this, he and Fabbro will continue to get smoked.

Hockey IQ: C

This is largely due to what I mentioned in the positioning section; Ekholm has struggled with decision making regarding his aggression. He’s been more satisfactory in this category because he still makes smart plays with the puck on his stick, most of the time, but again he’d benefit from having a more experienced and offensively oriented partner.

Play Driving: B

Ekholm has been satisfactory in this regard, even having improved xGF/60 numbers and about average CF/60. However, this has come at the cost of his elite defensive impact; his shot limiting has weakened considerably.

For this reason, I can only give his play driving a B, as it has only remained strong on paper due to his massively increased role as the primary puck carrier and shot generator, a role he is ill suited for.

So, what’s the final verdict?

C. . D. Nashville Predators. MATTIAS EKHOLM

It pains me to say this, but Ekholm has been pretty average by his lofty standards. He went from being the best defensive defenseman in the league and almost undoubtedly a top-ten defender overall to being an above average to average second-pair defender and a weak first-pairing player.

Until he joins up with someone who supplements his positives and compensates for his negatives, he will likely be at this level or a bit better (regressing back to his stellar mean output).

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Hopefully the Swede can get back to shutting down opposing teams when all of this is over. Until then, he gets a passing grade for a passable year.