To say that Mattias Ekholm has had a good season, so far, would be an understatement. The veteran defenseman has nearly matched his career high in goals in only 20 games and is currently riding a franchise record for defensemen, four game goal streak. But what has caused this increase in production?
In the previous five seasons, Ekholm has been a productive member of the Predators defensive corps, but his production has generally come in the form of assists. In his last two seasons, since taking a top 4 role, he has put up 27 and 20 assists, but has only netted 8 and 3 goals respectively. This year, with the absence of Ryan Ellis, he has already put up 5 goals and 8 assists and it is only November. He is currently tied for 4th on the team in goals scored, sixth in assists, and has a 15.6% shooting percentage. The real magic is on special teams where he has scored 3 with the man advantage and 1 while a man down and has a 50% shooting percentage.
Ekholm’s progression started to accelerate two seasons ago with departure of his regular defensive partner, Seth Jones. This moved Ekholm up to a pairing with Ryan Ellis, which increased his ice time by 2 to 3 minutes a game and increased his usage on special teams. The departure of Shea Weber saw Ekholm’s role increase even further as he played most games with PK Subban and increased his time on ice to more than 24 minutes per game and saw regular use on the 2nd power play unit, but his goal scoring dipped as PK Subban pulled some of his numbers, but his assists remained above the 20 mark.
Part of the increase in scoring this season could be from his increased responsibility due to the absence of Predators Associate Captain, Ryan Ellis, who has been out with a knee injury he sustained last season which required surgery to correct. This has propelled Ekholm into a top pairing role with Captain Roman Josi and increased his responsibility on both the power play and penalty kill as well. He is seeing an average of 24:50 in ice time per night and is eating up a ton of special teams time.
Another possible reason for his increased success is that Ekholm has made the shift from the left side to working primarily on the right, which is kind of curious for a left shooting defensemen, but has given him a different look at the net than a right shot would have and brings his shots on goal more from the center than from the sides. In past seasons, most of his goals have come from the point or the left side of the ice. It could be that this has opened up both sides of the net to him and forces goalies to defend both corners. He is shooting the puck at a career high pace as well, though I am not sure if that is of his own volition or at the direction of the coaching staff. He has averaged 113 shots on goal over the last three seasons, but this season he is on pace for more than 130 and this could increase even further if he continues to have the hot stick.
If he can maintain his current pace, he will score 20 goals and have 32 assists, which would put him in the top five of all defensemen in the league based upon last year’s scoring numbers. Do I think that this will happen? Probably not. He is likely to cool down some and see his time reduced when Ryan Ellis returns, but I do think he has every chance to finish with 15 goals and 25 assists, which would still put him in the top 25 of all blue liners in the NHL. Not bad for the 87th highest paid defenseman in the league.