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Hockey Analytics

Hockey Analytics: NHL's Stealthiest Defenseman

by Gus Katsaros
Updated On: March 18, 2021, 3:16 am ET

It’s not often a blueliner of Mattias Ekholm’s pedigree becomes available whether through free agency or via trade. The Nashville blueliner is one season away from hitting unrestricted free agency, and the 30-year-old is going to become a coveted piece league wide if he hits the open market. But before that’s to happen, the matter of how the Predators are handling this still needs to be addressed.

Rumored to be available, especially in light of the dismal showing from Nashville in this reduced 2020-21 season, any team looking to acquire him at the NHL trade deadline will get one more season at a very affordable $3.75 million. It’s not often a player of this quality hits the trade market either, so the offers should be substantial despite the cost certainty of one more season.

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Flyers at Rangers

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Oilers at Flames

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The six-foot-four Swede is actually quite adept at contributing to offensive situations and could very well be the league’s least recognized stealth rover. He’s played in the shadow of Roman Josi and a slew of other bigger names on the Predators roster, from Shea Weber to P.K. Subban, to Ryan Ellis – who has been sidelined for 4-6 weeks, providing an opportunity for Ekholm to fill a needed void.

 

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Ekholm’s been producing double digit offensive totals ever since an eight point rookie campaign, averaging 21 5v5 points per season. With four goals firing 8.51% in a fairly horrible Predators season, after missing seven games to injury, he’s on his way to chasing his 7-goal career high. And while a change of scenery may seem to imply better point totals, his defensive acumen is still the main attractive characteristic.

Part of a modern defensive ability, he’s integrated new ideas and ways to get pucks back when the Predators don’t have it, in combination with team level strategy and tactics, with strong mobility and vision to contribute to a North-South game. If required, he can lug the puck and has exceptional puck management from the blueline in the offensive zone.

This season, he’s earned points in career high 47% of on-ice goals, starting off with three assists in the first 10 games leading up to the injury layoff. The injury is a distinct line between production, coming back with four multiple point games, and nine points in 10 games (10-5-4-9). He’s recorded 11 and 13 individual shot chance attempts single game season highs, while playing with Dante Fabbro and recently Alexandre Carrier.

With data from Natural Stat Trick, we can decipher some 5v5 metrics to describe his on-ice impact. The table below shows how Ekholm has spread his influence on the Predators.

Posting career high 1.32 pts/60, he’s firing at career high shots per 60 (7.78) with the team firing 36.07 per 60 with him on the ice, represents 21.5% of shots while on the ice.  He’s providing 16.71 individual scoring chances for per 60 accounting for 25% of on-ice shot attempts production. The metrics are summarized below.

 

 

SF/60

CF/60

Pts/60

SCF/60

Ekholm

7.78

16.71 

1.32

2.81

Team

36.07

63.2

 

28.13

 

This season’s Nashville team’s 63 shot attempts per 60 is the highest since Ekholm began with them, and the same goes for the shot per 60 rates. With the increase in shooting rates, increased scoring would seem to be the natural result, but he’s not providing much more than his career average (2.61). Increased shot metrics at an individual and team level, but no increase in scoring chances can draw the conclusion that there’s a lot of shots flying from the point, but not many in prime scoring areas. Sometimes it’s a matter of directing pucks to the net and letting the ensuing chaos erupt into a goal.

Heat maps from HockeyViz show the evolution of Ekholm’s shooting propensity and how it’s become more impactful this season.

Lining up on the left side, it’s evident in 2020-21 his influence from the left point is more profound than any of the two preceding seasons.

Nashville 5v5 Offense Heat Map Last three Seasons

As the Predators struggled over the last couple of seasons, culminating into a disappointing 2020-21, the offensive zone pressure has yielded to getting pucks to the points, and less than in the high danger scoring areas.

Despite pucks being funneled back to the point more often, the shooting gallery from the top of the zone is becoming less valuable as a viable strategy than incorporating pre shot movement, and setting up down low in the offensive zone – new age ideas that are replacing conventional strategy.

A strategy that incorporates a presence below the dots is instrumental to generating scoring chances. Pucks get back to the points and players can step into hard shots or set up teammates with creative vision and playmaking execution.

The increase in offensive presence for Ekholm is the result of being a stealth rover type, hiding the offensive characteristics in a shroud of defensive acumen, not necessarily because of the focus of puck strategy.

 

DEFENSE IS A VIRTUE

Ekholm’s value on the defensive side is impactful, because he contributes to both retrieving pucks (the act of defense is a transition of not having the puck possession to regaining puck possession) and to the offense. Illustrated below is the career progression of on-ice shots against to scoring chances against per 60 and expected goals against goals against per 60.

Shots against on a team level have become a concern for the once stingy Predators in general, but even the on-ice results with Ekholm paint a bleak overall team picture. They are bleeding shots from all over the ice and that is dragging down metrics en-masse.

Mattias Ekholm Defensive Career Metrics

 

Isolating the individual impact of a player on the overall defensive scheme is difficult to measure (even as HockeyViz has tried to do that with individual players. Accounting for increasing shot against rates specifically due to Ekholm’s presence is difficult and perhaps even an exercise in futility. Even despite the increase in shooting, goals against is actually lower despite the increases.

The team that picks up Ekholm will be able to solidify their defense immensely, stepping right in and providing a stabilizing element all round. But will the offensive production continue? I’m somewhat skeptical that without some of the facets hindering the Predators this season, and the necessity to incorporate more point shots, while Ekholm fits the mold of a rover and contributor to both sides of the puck, the offensive production may slow down considerably.

After all, the lucky team acquiring him will be getting a solid defensive presence and a rover archetype.

Gus Katsaros
Gus Katsaros is the Pro Scouting Coordinator with McKeen’s Hockey, publishers of industry leading scouting and fantasy guide, the McKeen’s Annual Hockey Pool Yearbook. He also contributes to popular blog MapleLeafsHotStove.com ... he can be followed on Twitter @KatsHockey