Dating back to the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the Nashville Predators have made a habit of developing big, strong, talented defensemen. Even with so much success in the draft, one thing has always held true – the road to Nashville leads through Milwaukee. But last year, one rookie defensemen didn’t get that message.
Mattias Ekholm, a 2009 fourth-round pick, impressed the coaching staff and earned a spot on the roster out of training camp in his first year – a feat not many Preds prospects have accomplished. He was a healthy scratch for the first five games of the 2011-12 season, before seeing his first game action in the home opener against Phoenix – a 5-3 loss. The 6-foot-4 defenseman’s next appearance came in Vancouver a couple nights later as the Preds fell 5-1. He managed just one shot on goal, failed to register a point and was a minus-1 in those outings.
His performance left much to be desired not only from the Preds management but from the 22-year-old Swede as well.
“It’s not a completely different game here, but it is different,” Ekholm said. “The rinks are smaller and it is higher speed. I was frustrated that I didn’t take advantage of the chance last year, but I learned a lot from that experience. I learned how to play the game and how to play against the best guys in the world.”
Following the Vancouver game, Ekholm returned to Brynas IF of the Swedish Elite League, but his shorter-than-expected NHL tenure left a lasting impression on the young defenseman.
“That was a huge experience for me going back to Sweden,” Ekholm explained. “Knowing that I made an NHL team and that I played some NHL games – that kept me going when I got back. My first goal coming into last season was to make the team in Nashville. When that didn’t happen, I went back to Sweden and I got back into my game pretty quick.”
Ekholm returned to his homeland with a new sense of drive and motivation and it showed in his play. He finished the season among the Top 20 defensemen in points (9g-8a-17pts), as Brynas claimed the Elite League championship. Those tough lessons learned in Nashville also stuck with him as he was awarded the Swedish Elite League equivalent of the Norris Trophy – the Borje Salming Trophy – as Sweden’s top defenseman.
“I was able to win that trophy and it was huge for me – I mean it is the best defenseman in Sweden,” Ekholm said. “I felt good all season and we were able to win the Elite League Championship. Even though I would have liked to stay in Nashville last year, but those experiences in Sweden were huge – I feel much more confident now.”
Ekholm is now playing with more confidence, as evidenced by his first full season in North America, where he currently leads all Milwaukee blueliners and ranks fifth on the team in scoring with 10 points (4g-6a) – but Ekholm knows there is still work to be done.
“I came into this season with hopes of improving my game in Milwaukee and I think I’ve done that,” Ekholm said. “I’m still working on some things – my defensive game in my own end. I’m trying to be in the right place all the time and trying to play hard in front of my own net. I think that has been the hardest thing for me, playing hard in my own end and finding the right angles. They are small things but they make a big difference in my game.
“I think the offensive side of my game has come along pretty good; it hasn’t been a struggle for me this year. We are 18 games into the season and I feel very confident all over the ice.”
With the hard lessons behind him, the big defenseman has his sights set on another go-around with the NHL club. While the competition remains stiff along Nashville blue line, Ekholm continues use his time in the AHL to hone his North American game and prepare for his next shot.
Perhaps the biggest lesson Ekholm learned this past season was how to handle adversity and overcome.
“I believe in myself and I think I have the ability to do it,” Ekholm said. “I know there are a lot of good defensemen in Nashville; so I just have to play my game and hopefully I will be ready whenever the season starts.”
FENTON ON EKHOLM
This year, knowing that he would stay in North America, no matter if he had made our team in Nashville or not, I think helped his mindset. He certainly has the talent to be able to play here with the big club. It’s almost a blessing in disguise that he has been able to play down in Milwaukee and work on his game. He is getting fine-tuned; he’s learning how to defend a little bit better as opposed to just running-and-gunning as most offensive defensemen tend to do. He has had some very good tutoring down in Milwaukee and has really shown great progress thus far.
He needs to continue to fine-tune his defensive game. He understands that he has to improve his angles and he also has to lead with his stick. That was one of his tendencies last year – he wouldn’t put his stick blade-on-blade and get his body on guys. These are all things our coaches in Milwaukee have been working on with him. We have been able to watch him play and our coaches up here have been able to give them advice and insight as to how he can improve his game. Right now, he has been showing improvement – it’s just fine-tuning, it’s coaching, and it’s day-to-day execution.
His offensive game is still there because he is very capable of exploiting defenses. He has a great tendency of seeing the ice well and being able to get shots through to the net. He has this amazing escapability, which for a big man, is tough to find. I mean, he is 6-foot-4 and he can waltz around guys and that gives him the ability to pick teams apart.
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