PITTSBURGH — Mattias Ekholm’s teammates wonder why it took so long for the 27-year-old Nashville Predators defenceman to get his due.
“You ask anyone in our room, he’s been an elite defenceman for years now,” said Ryan Ellis, Ekholm’s long-time defensive partner before being replaced this season by former Montreal Canadien P.K. Subban. “If people covered our games more they probably would have seen it a lot easier too.”
Make no mistake, Subban is the engine that makes the Predators quasi-top pair go. But Ekholm, the 37th defenceman picked in the 2009 draft, has quietly emerged as a capable sidekick and secret weapon of sorts in the Preds’ quest to shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Stanley Cup final.
“That’s going to be a key to this series is to limit their offensive chances and limit their offensive game,” Ekholm said before Game 1, a 5-3 loss for the Preds in which the Penguins were largely contained — going 37 minutes straight without a shot.
Ekholm and Subban are Nashville’s best option for limiting the Penguins scary 1-2 punch.
They formed maybe the NHL’s most effective defence pairing during the regular season. According to Corsica Hockey, the Preds generated 55 per cent of five-on-five shot attempts when they were on the ice together — a mark bettered by only Calgary’s Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton among duos that played over 800 minutes.
Ekholm and Subban completely shuttered Ryan Getzlaf in the Western Conference final (zero goals), contained Vladimir Tarasenko in the second round (zero goals at even-strength when the two were on the ice) and stifled Jonathan Toews in an opening round sweep (zero even-strength goals).
Preds coach Peter Laviolette thought it was obvious to pair Subban with Roman Josi when the former arrived from Montreal, but altered that plan after only a few games.
“As it turned out, the numbers and the eyeball all pointed to Roman and Ryan being a terrific pair (and) Ekholm and Subban being a really, really big, strong, tough pair to play against,” Laviolette said. ”They’ve been able to handle a lot of minutes and a lot of big opponents.”
Ekholm, sporting a thick auburn-coloured playoff beard, remembers it taking some time to find chemistry with the former Norris trophy winner. But he thought it helped that both had similar styles. Each had no fear of joining the attack and could still defend capably.
Like Subban, Ekholm is also large at six foot four and 215 pounds, and maybe his greatest gift is being able to move like someone smaller.
Fellow Swede and Predators teammate Viktor Arvidsson thinks Ekholm, a forward growing up, might be one of the finest skaters at his position.
“A guy can’t skate by him because he’s so good at skating — his mobility is really good. And he’s also a big guy — he’s strong — so that makes it even harder for a forward,” Josi said.
He added that Ekholm, a modest offensive contributor (eight points in the playoffs), effectively employed his stick as a defensive tool and made a quality first pass out of the Nashville zone.
Ekholm won the Borje Salming award as the Swedish league’s top defenceman in 2012. Josi thought the otherwise unknown Swede — the Preds seventh selection in ‘09 — was something special when the two went to their first development camp together.
He sensed it because of the skill and skating ability.
Predators general manager David Poile knew he had something after Ekholm’s second full NHL season, signing him for six years almost US$23 million. Poile was also admittedly comfortable dealing promising regarding Seth Jones because he had Ekholm — as well as Ellis — behind Josi and Weber, then still the team’s captain.
Ekholm beams when Weber’s name comes up. He describes the now-Canadiens defender, who was swapped for Subban, as the consummate role model and leader and an easy study for defending top players.
After averaging a career-high 23 minutes during the regular season, Ekholm is up to 25 and a half so far in the playoffs. In Game 1 against the Penguins, he logged 25 minutes, including six-plus at even-strength against Crosby and almost eight against Malkin.
Ekholm finished the night at 67 per cent possession, though he was also the victim of two bad bounces which ended up in the net. The second saw Nick Bonino fire a harmless shot off the rush which Pekka Rinne poke-checked directly off Ekholm.
Underlying numbers suggest Ekholm benefits from playing with Subban, but he’s holding his own nonetheless and proving to be another draft-weekend gem from a Nashville scouting department that also landed Norris candidates, Josi and Weber, in the second round.
“He always played really well and it seems that people, now that we’re playing in the playoffs and are going deep, people seem to recognize how good he is,” Josi said. ”But I think in our team and our organization, people always knew how good he could be.”