With young guns stealing the headlines and established stars refusing to pass them the torch just yet, excitement certainly isn’t lacking in the NHL. There’s a buzz in the air. We’re near the halfway mark of the season, and teams haven’t lit the lamp this much since 1995-96.
The Nashville Predators must then represent the league’s wet blanket.
Despite a couple of losses this week, Peter Laviolette’s squad has stood firm in its belief that defense wins championships. Nashville only boasts the 14th-ranked offense in the league, but its commitment to keeping opponents off the board has amounted to the lowest goals-against average and a 22-11-2 record. That’s good for second place in the Central Division and fifth in the NHL.
Mattias Ekholm lies at the heart of this stinginess. While the 28-year-old isn’t the quickest, flashiest or meanest defenseman around, he’s an absolute rock on the back end. His smarts, positioning and disruptive stick stand out when you watch him. Ekholm has only recently gained recognition for his two-way prowess (22 points in 35 games), but he’s been an unheralded stud for years.
Granted, playing in front of Pekka Rinne (2.07 GAA, 92.7 SV%) helps. The 6’5”, 217-pound Finn is as imposing a starting netminder as there is in the league, and he combines that massive stature with stunning athleticism. For a man his size, his ability to make scrambling desperation saves is uncanny.
However, the relationship is mutually beneficial. As the soundest blueliner on the roster, Ekholm is great at minimizing danger and providing a calming presence in hairy situations. When he’s on the ice with Rinne, the Preds own a ridiculous 79.2% of the goals scored. When he’s off, that mark drops to 47.5%. Nashville’s even-strength goal tally when Ekholm and Rinne are iced together is 19-5. In other words, the Predators become a juggernaut.
On the year, the team controls 53.0% of the shot attempts, 54.8% of the scoring chances and 58.3% of the goals during Ekholm’s shifts. Those numbers fall right in line with his career averages too. There’s no astronomical PDO (101.1) to account for. He’s simply a really, really good defenseman.
Ekholm’s stellar performance is especially impressive in 2018-19.
His regular partner, PK Subban, has been sidelined since Nov. 13 with an upper-body injury. Filip Forsberg (upper body) and Viktor Arvidsson (thumb), two of the club’s best forwards, have also missed considerable time. Removing these three players from the lineup places an even heavier burden than usual on the defense, as the Predators are obviously spending longer stretches defending.
Moreover, Dan Hamhuis has stepped in as Subban’s temporary replacement. The 36-year-old veteran was once as reliable as it gets on the blue line. These days, he’s running on fumes. He constantly turns pucks over under pressure and is slow to process plays as they unfold. As a result, Ekholm is forced to fend off the hordes by himself.
Hamhuis’ reliance on Ekholm is plain to see. With him, he puts up a 53.6 CF% and 56.9 SCF%. Without him, he just hangs on for dear life (43.8 CF%, 44.6 SCF%).
This one-man show also manifests itself offensively. Ekholm ranks second on the blue line in even-strength points (17) and is posting the highest individual points percentage (42.9) of his career. He’s never been asked to do more with less on both ends of the ice, yet he continues to deliver the goods.
Ekholm’s efforts become even more important when you consider the blue line’s construction. Captain Roman Josi drives the play like few rearguards in the world (54.1 CF%). By that same token, he’s a noted risk-taker. With Subban, Forsberg and Arvidsson out, he’s gone on a mission to compensate for all of their absences at once. Though he’s produced very well (26 points in 35 games), his over-aggressiveness has come back to bite him. At 5-on-5, opponents actually own a greater share of the goals scored when Josi is on the ice. To a lesser degree, the same applies to Ryan Ellis.
This places additional strain on the second and third pairings. Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin have fared very well (58.4 CF%, 56.5 SCF%, 77.8 GF%), but they’ve enjoyed sheltered deployment. No one will suggest that they can take on top-six units and perform to that standard.
Meanwhile, Ekholm plays 23 minutes and change per game against quality opposition, and he routinely comes out on top. He’s been a minus player in just six of his 35 outings this season. Six. He simply doesn’t give anything away for free. That doesn’t sound incredible in and of itself, but making the other team earn its chances and goals puts your squad in a great position to win.
Nashville’s win percentage in one-goal games ranks 11th. When the Predators score first, their 17-2-0 record is tied with Calgary’s for tops in the league. They’re nearly impossible to mount a comeback against because they know how to lock it down.
Ekholm plays a vital part in that suffocating defense. He can match up against anyone and get the better of them. At 6’4” and 215 pounds, he wins the lion’s share of his one-on-one battles. His angles and stick work are superb. On the penalty kill, he’s equally adept at shutting down backdoor passes and boxing out attackers. Though he supports the offense, he rarely gets caught executing an ill-timed pinch. And he accomplishes all this while carrying a severely declining Hamhuis on his back.
Whether he can hold up under these circumstances is unclear. Thankfully, reinforcements are inbound.
According to reports, Subban, Forsberg and Arvidsson are expected to return shortly. That’s great news for a team in need of scoring punch. It should also relieve some of the pressure that the blue line has faced of late.
Until then, Nashville will dig its heels in and hope that Ekholm and company can weather the storm for a little while longer. Even once everyone is healthy, the Predators’ defense-first philosophy may not lead to a championship in this high-scoring league. It’s their identity, though, and it’s certainly helping them win games in the meantime.