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Mattias Ekholm revealed

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Who is Ekholm really, and why do Leafs fans keep saying his name?

Nashville Predators v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a better defensive corps than they have ever had before. There’s no indication at all that the Maple Leafs would add a defender at the deadline. There are also very good expansion draft reasons not to add a defender who is going to stick around beyond this season.

But Leafs fans have been ritually chanting the name of a talisman defender for years, trying to work some kind of spell on the GM of the team to first have anyone at all that was capable, then maybe to go for two at a time, until we eventually hit years of begging for one more top pairing player, just one! Now we’re trained to search for a defender all the time like a cough will make you long for the sickly syrup you had as a child that didn’t actually do anything to cure your cold.

This season’s ritual name is Mattias Ekholm, and hey, at least he’s available, so that’s fairly unusual. Like Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, and likely about 20 defencemen I’ve forgotten, the desire for a hero defender to come and save us all is so common, there are about a million movies out every year on this theme. Kyle Dubas keeps signing Clark Kent types who turn out to be quietly very good.

The Leafs aren’t trading for Ekholm, and I’m not particularly interested in him, but for fun I decided to profile him, so just this once, the ritual chanting can be about an actual player, not the idea of a saviour.

Vitals

Ekholm is 30, going on 31, and is 6’4” and 216lbs, per Elite Prospects. That gives him Joe Thornton’s build. Or Frederik Andersen’s. So I’m not expecting speed to be his thing, but stride length might disguise some slow acceleration.

He is a left-shooting defender who plays the left side, at least in recent years.

He was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the fourth round in 2009 at 102nd overall. And he is, crucially, signed through next season for an AAV of $3.75 million.

History

Ekholm stayed in Sweden for two years after he was drafted, came over in 2011, and was promptly sent back again after two NHL games. He played the lockout shortened year entirely in the AHL except for one more NHL game, and he had decent, but not overwhelming points in his only season in the minors. Rasmus Sandin’s career AHL points rate is better, and he hasn’t yet hit the age Ekholm was when he played.

In 2013-2014, Ekholm became a fulltime member of the Predators and has rarely missed any time to injury, gets somewhere around 25 - 35 points each year, and seems not to have slowed down at all in that respect.

He has played the third-most minutes in all situations on the Preds for the last three years, and seems to be their 2-3 guy. He’s played the last two years mostly with Dante Fabbro, nominally as the second pair, and prior to that he was usually P.K. Subban’s partner, so he seems like he’s the defensive anchor to an offensively talented partner — the Muzzin to their Holl, the Brodie to their Rielly.

Charts and Graphs

Given who he seems to be from a cursory study — the classic strong, silent type defender from central casting — it’s interesting that HockeyViz shows him with very large offensive impacts in the last two years (after a career of negatives) with some below-average defensive results, again in the last two years, after years of impressive defensive impacts.

Something on the team has changed! And obviously it has, they’re terrible, or they wouldn’t be trading Ekholm or anyone else. Ekholm has also gone from Subban when he was good to Fabbro who HockeyViz has rated out as a defender so negative in impact offensively as to be, well, I don’t think Roman Polak ever looked that bad, let me check. Not even close.

What gives?

One explanation is that when you have two players who nearly always play together, and Fabbro plays almost entirely with Ekholm, but Ekholm plays a little with other defenders, you can confound the kind of model like HockeyViz’s just a little. Other things are likely going on as well, the team is degrading more than Ekholm, so he looks better and better as he plays with teammates who are farther and farther from his abilities.

Also, Fabbro is quite possibly very bad, just not that bad.

Evolving Hockey agrees with HockeyViz that, last season, Ekholm was an offensive god in stark contrast to his career prior. That career has him with good offensive impacts, really superlative defensive impacts, and he was, overall, a top-pairing quality defender kept out of the top pair by even better defenders.

One other thing that’s changed for Ekholm is Matt Duchene. He produces and experiences a lot of the team’s good offence, and Ekholm plays with him a lot. This season in particular, Ekholm’s heat map looks like he’s on a different team to the rest of the Preds:

The team has devolved, as bored, bad teams often do, to a point-shooting system that does nothing else offensively most of the time. But when Ekholm plays, they shoot from halfway decent locations. And that’s their top offensive players doing that, Duchene, Forsberg, Arvidsson, not Ekholm himself.

Ekholm is a very high volume shooter, however. The Preds like defenders who shoot a lot, so no one is telling him no there, but this season he has managed to outpace Tyson Barrie, Dougie Hamilton and Roman Josi to lead the NHL in shot rate for regular roster defenders. This is a bit above normal for him, so part of this odd season of results seems to be that he keeps getting the puck and shooting rather than passing.

His personal shooting is not very good, and isn’t any better than in the past, and can’t at all account for that improved on-ice or isolated offensive results. I think that he’s just taken on more of a top-pairing offensively focused role with less time spent on the ice with grinders. And he’s good at it!

The trouble is, this skill has been revealed just as his defending has waned. His defensive results, even isolated to account for teammates and competition etc. might also be a bit shaded by the Preds having gone from the best defensive team in years to a limping husk of their former selves as well, though.

A defender his age is a gamble. At best, age-related decline is about to begin if it hasn’t already. At worst, it’s about to speed up a lot.

Teams looking to trade for him — well, frankly, they are judging on scouting in limited quantities or reputation or his height or his points — but they have to decide if the oddity of his results this year is him, the team, or some of both.

The cost is likely going to be high since it’s not every season you get a player who can slide into a top four at the deadline. But it’s a price that should be paid with a great deal of caution.

I can’t see how you can fit him on the Leafs in position, role or by salary, or why you’d spend the assets to do it, but now when you chant his name you can have a (confused) picture in your mind of who he is instead of just an image of a big, tall defender in a red cape.