Mattias Ekholm excelled in his sole season with Brynas IF in the Elitserien, winning the league’s rookie of the year honors. He notably beat out New Jersey prospect Adam Larsson, the fourth overall pick of the 2011 Draft.
While the 6’3″ defenseman has already spent a season playing against older players, there are differences between hockey in the Elitserien and hockey in the NHL. For starters, the NHL’s ice surface is smaller.
“Everything’s quicker over here as far as the smaller rink,” said Milwaukee Admirals head coach Kirk Muller. “Everything’s tighter, so passes have to be a little sharper, quicker and all that.”
Positioning on defense is also different in North America than it is in Europe, something which Ekholm has noticed.
“Those 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s, you have to figure out where you’re going to be,” Ekholm said. “Getting into the North American style of hockey, I guess that’s the biggest challenge for me right now.”
“He sees the ice well,” Muller said. “He’s an NHL-type skater so that’s a key part to the game. So you know he’s got all the elements as far as his attitude’s great, he’s got the size, (and) he can skate.”
Ekholm comes to Nashville and finds himself in the midst of a fierce battle among young defensemen for two open defensive spots on the Nashville roster. With Shane O’Brien now in Colorado and with Francis Bouillon’s status uncertain, Jon Blum, Kevin Klein, Ryan Suter, and Shea Weber are the only blue-liners who appear to be certain.
“I know there’s three or four other guys that are top prospects that I’m competing against so I just try to improve every day and see how far I can go.”
Those players include Ryan Ellis, Jack Hillen, Roman Josi, and Teemu Laakso.
Since Hillen, Josi and Laakso have yet to hit the ice officially for training camp, Ekholm is not yet able to put a gauge on what his coaches will be wanting in a defenseman.
“I just try to do my best every day and if the coaches like me and they want to put me in a role on the team, I would be more than happy to get it.”
He does note, however, that he is a very versatile player.
“I can be a shut-down defenseman but I can play the power play, too. I don’t think I have the best shot or the best hits, but my overall game is my strength.”
Drafted in the fourth round in 2009 by Nashville, 102nd overall, Ekholm had a breakout year in Sweden in 2010-11. He had two very respectable seasons with Mora IK of HockeyAllsvenskan, the second highest level of hockey in Sweden, in which he put up 3 goals and 32 assists in 79 games over two seasons. However, after transitioning to Brynas IF, his game took off. In 55 games, Ekholm scored 10 goals and added 23 assists on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors (current Predator Patric Hornqvist won the same award in 2007). Altogether, the 21-year-old has already played three full seasons of professional hockey against grown men, while his main competitor in rookie camp, Ryan Ellis, has not.
As for inspiration, not surprisingly, Ekholm tries to model his game after a certain captain of a team from the Motor City.
“I can give you an easy answer on that and that’s Nik Lidstrom – he’s a Swedish guy, he’s the best defenseman in the league like 6 years in a row or something. He’s just a real good guy and he’s so huge in Sweden and what he does on the ice it’s just incredible. And with his age, too, he’s great – a really good hockey player.”
If Ekholm manages to make his way to Nashville from training camp, he will have the opportunity to see Lidstrom up close and personal six times this season.