The Nashville Predators have one of the league’s best blue lines that is loaded with top level talent, so much so that they have four defensemen who could be number ones on many other teams. Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are the most notable names in their defense corps with Mattias Ekholm often being an afterthought. But that isn’t the case this season.
Instead, he has quietly developed into the Predators’ best blueliner and the 28-year-old Swede is in the midst of a career season. A season that I feel should lead to his name being mentioned among the league’s best defensemen and one that should garner him Norris Trophy consideration at season’s end.
It’s easy to get lost in why players should receive trophy attention, especially the Norris, which is awarded to the league’s best defenseman. Often times the award is presented with points, plus/minus and whether or not writers have been building a case for a player over the past few seasons taken into consideration. I see those as oversights.
Yes, producing on offense is key to the success of a player and his team, but to be named the league’s best defenseman, I think a player needs to thrive at playing defense, something Ekholm does, and often better than other “elite” blueliners. Here are some other reasons he should be considered for the 2019 Norris Trophy.
Having His Best Statistical Season
So far in 2018-19, Ekholm has appeared in 46 of the Predators’ 47 games with his lone absence the result of an illness that prevented him from playing the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 20. He has six goals and a career-high 28 assists for 34 points. He has a plus/minus of plus-19, an outdated stat for sure, but it still conveys, to an extent, how well the team performs with a player on the ice.
He has one power-play goal, three game-winning goals, five power play assists and one shorthanded assist. He is shooting 7.3 percent while averaging 23:07 of ice time per game and has a minus-15 turnover margin. His scoring totals break down to averages of .13 goals-per-game (G/G) and .74 points-per-game (P/G), both career highs. He has been equal to 2.7 offensive point shares (OPS), 3.8 defensive point shares (DPS) and 6.5 point shares (PS), metrics that show a player’s contribution to his team’s point total for the season.
In addition to the career highs he has already set, Ekholm has either already tied or is on-pace to break a few other personal bests. He needs five goals to surpass the 10 goals he netted last season, two points to score more than the 35 he had in 2015-16, two more even strength goals to score more than his six from 2014-15 and 2017-18 and four more power play assists to have more than the eight he totaled last season. Additionally, by point shares, his current career highs are 2.8 OPS from 2015-16, 5.5 DPS from last season and 7.8 PS from 2015-16 and 2017-18.
He is also generating offense at unprecedented levels for his career. His .34 goals-per-60 (G/60), 1.58 assists-per-60 (A/60), 1.92 points-per-60 (P/60) and 4.63 shots-per-60 (S/60) are all career highs, as is his 60.7 individual point percentage (IPP), which measures the percentage of goals scored by a player’s team when he is on the ice that he had a point on. So, for example, if a player has an IPP of 50.0, it means that he registers a point on 50 percent of his team’s goals when he is on the ice in a given situation.
Thriving in All Situations
What makes Ekholm a great defenseman is that he performs well in all three zones and in all situations. This season, at five-on-five, he is averaging 18:35 per game, second-highest of his career, .28 G/60, 1.19 A/60, 1.47 P/60 and 4.63 S/60, all career bests. He has an IPP of 53.9, another career high.
Although he doesn’t play as much on the man advantage as Ellis, Josi or Subban, Ekholm is still averaging 1:36 of power-play time per game, the second-highest average of his career. His .81 G/60 are his third-most while his 4.07 A/60, 8.13 S/60 and an IPP of 85.7 are career highs. Additionally, his 4.88 P/60 are second despite generating the fewest individual scoring chances per-60 (iSCF/60) on the power play of his career at 2.44. The same holds true on the penalty kill, averaging 2:06 per game this season, third-highest of his career.
His play is greatly impacting his teammates this season in a positive way. At five-on-five, the team’s shots for percentage (SF%) of 54.7 with him deployed is the second-highest of his career while their goals for percentage (GF%) of 60 is the highest. Interestingly, their 53.3 scoring chances for percentage (SCF%) and 51.2 high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) with Ekholm on the ice are both the second-lowest of his career.
Meanwhile, the team has a .932 save percentage and shoots 8.5 percent when he is playing, the first and third-highest of his career, respectively. These lead to a career-high 101.7 PDO, the sum of a team’s on-ice save and shooting percentages with 100 being average. He’s accomplishing all this while starting in the defensive zone a team-high 33 percent of the time at five-on-five, which equates to a career-high 11.1 defensive zone starts per-60.
Picks up His Defense Partners
What has made Ekholm so valuable throughout his career is his quiet ability to positively improve his defense partner’s possession metrics. He can be placed on a pair with a defenseman who traditionally gets caved in at five-on-five and improve his metrics to above 50 percent. It’s something he has done in spades this season.
His two most common partners this season are Subban, with 398 shared five-on-five minutes, and Dan Hamhuis, with 347 minutes. Ekholm and Subban have been a pair for the past two seasons and have typically dominated play, especially last season. With Subban possessing strong metrics of his own, the pair has thrived at shutting down opponents’ chances while generating its own.
In the past, both Ekholm and Subban have had strong metrics away from each other and complement one another. That hasn’t been the case this season as Ekholm has been the better player by a considerable margin.
Together the pair has the following metrics: 55.0 SF%, 60.5 GF%, 53.3 SCF% and 49.2 HDCF% while starting in the defensive zone 31.1 percent of the time. However, when Subban has played with a different partner, his metrics drop to: 42.4 SF%, 30.0 GF%, 40.2 SCF% and 45.2 HDCF%. Of course, some of this has to do with the quality of his other partners, but the fact remains that Ekholm is propping Subban up this season.
It’s the same story with Ekholm’s pair with Hamhuis, one that was created due to Subban’s extended injury absence earlier this season. Together, the Ekholm/Hamhuis metrics are: 55.1 SF%, 52.9 GF%, 54.4 SCF% and 52.6 HDCF% while starting in the defensive zone 33.4 percent of the time. Those are quite impressive considering the lack of advantageous zone starts and because Hamhuis has generally been bad this season, something that is sussed out in his metrics away from Ekholm: 39.3 SF%, 58.3 GF%, 41.2 SCF% and 38.5 HDCF%.
Ekholm hasn’t played more than 40 minutes with any other partners. Of Nashville’s five pairs with at least 100 five-on-five minutes, the two with Ekholm have the team’s two highest defensive zone start percentages and his pair with Subban has the Predators’ second-highest shots for percentage behind Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber.
Of NHL pairs with at least 300 shared five-on-five minutes, Ekholm’s pairs rate well in numerous categories. He and Hamhuis are fourth with 25.3 shots against per-60 (SA/60), sixth with 1.59 goals against per-60 (GA/60) and 25th in defensive zone start percentage. Meanwhile, Ekholm and Subban rank sixth with 34.7 shots for per-60 (SF/60), eighth in shots for percentage, 10th with 3.41 goals for per-60 (GF/60), 13th with 27.6 SA/60 and 27th with 2.32 GA/60. So as you can see, Ekholm improves his defense partners with the result being his pairs ranking among the league’s best.
Is He Even the Most Deserving Predator?
But despite these metrics and how well his pairs rank, there are other defensemen with strong metrics who rank highly. Now it’s time to prove why Ekholm is one of the league’s best defensemen and why his name belongs in the Norris Trophy conversation. However, as a member of the Predators’ loaded defense, is he even the most deserving Norris candidate on his team? Let’s find out.
Because Subban has missed 19 games this season and it’d be difficult for him to accumulate enough stats to garner serious Norris consideration, I’m going to stick to looking at Ellis and Josi, neither of whom has missed a game this season. In his 47 games, Ellis is averaging .09 G/G and .45 P/G while being totaling 1.1 OPS, 3.1 DPS, 4.2 PS and a plus-six turnover margin. Ekholm has the better stats in all areas but turnover margin.
Now onto Josi, who is averaging .15 G/G and .72 P/G and has accumulated 2.6 OPS, 2.8 DPS, 5.4 PS and a minus-19 turnover margin. All but his goals-per-game rate and turnover margin are worse than Ekholm’s stats.
Among Predators defensemen with at least 500 five-on-five minutes, Ekholm ranks first in average time on ice, points-per-60, goals for per-60, high-danger chances against per-60 and defensive zone start percentage. He is also tied for first in goals-per-60 and is second to Josi in individual points percentage, shots-per-60, scoring chances for per-60 and high-danger chances for per-60. He is second to Hamhuis in shots against, goals against and scoring chances against per-60. So based on those stats, yes, Ekholm is the Predators’ most deserving Norris candidate.
How Does He Compare to past Winners?
After establishing that he deserves consideration relative to his teammates and that his pairs are among the league’s best, how does he fare when compared to past Norris winners? To find out, I’ve looked at the past three recipients of the trophy.
Victor Hedman (2017-18)
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman, and most recent Norris winner, Victor Hedman, had a strong 2017-18 season that resulted in his first Norris. In 77 games, he averaged .22 G/G and .82 P/G and totaled 5.7 OPS, 5.2 DPS, 11.0 PS and a minus-21 turnover margin. At five-on-five, he averaged .59 G/60, 1.26 P/60, 6.44 S/60, 3.66 iSCF/60 and .84 individual high-danger chances per-60 (iHDCF/60). He also accumulated an IPP of 39.5 while averaging 18:30 of ice time per game.
Ekholm is the better player in turnover margin, points-per-60, individual point percentage and time on ice. Also, if you project his stats across 81 games, the most he can play this season, he will be better in defensive point shares and total point shares. He also has the better individual metrics in what I call the four “against” stats: shots against, goals against, scoring chances against and high-danger chances against, all per-60, while starting in the defensive zone a higher percent of the time.
So based on the most recent Norris Trophy winner, Ekholm belongs in the conversation, although it should be mentioned that Hedman’s 2017-18 season wasn’t his best performance. That occurred the previous season, in 2016-17, when Brent Burns won the award.
Brent Burns (2016-17)
In 2016-17, Burns turned in one of the best seasons by a defenseman since Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey retired in the early 2000’s. In 82 games, he averaged .35 G/G and .93 P/G while being worth 8.9 OPS and 15.3 PS. At five-on-five, he averaged .75 G/60, 1.78 P/60, 8.77 S/60, 4.94 iSCF/60 and .71 iHDCF/60. He also had an IPP of 60.0. Furthermore, when he was deployed, the Sharks maintained rates of 32.8 SF/60, 2.96 G/60, 32.0 SCF/60 and 13.5 HDCF/60. Ekholm doesn’t come close to touching any of Burns’ offensive numbers.
However, when it comes to the defensive side of the game, it’s a different story. Ekholm bests Burns’ 6.4 DPS, minus-101 turnover margin and 18:30 five-on-five time on ice. The Predators have also had better metrics in all the “against” per-60 stats with Ekholm deployed than the San Jose Sharks did with Burns at five-on-five.
Drew Doughty (2015-16)
Three seasons ago Drew Doughty won the only Norris Trophy of his career thus far. Compared to Hedman and Burns, Doughty was both a dominant offensive and defensive presence. In 82 games, the Los Angeles Kings blueliner averaged .17 G/G and .62 P/G and accumulated 4.5 OPS, 7.1 DPS, 11.6 PS and a minus-87 turnover margin. Ekholm is better in points-per-game, offensive point shares, turnover margins and ties Doughty in total point shares.
At five-on-five, Ekholm’s stats are better than Doughty’s .14 G/60, .64 P/60, 4.57 S/60, 2.19 iSCF/60, .21 iHDCF/60 and his IPP of 29.5. From a metrics standpoint, Doughty’s were better in all but goals for per-60 and defensive zone start percentage. So based on Hedman, Burns and Doughty, Ekholm absolutely deserves to be among the candidates for the 2019 Norris Trophy. Next up is comparing him with this season’s perceived top candidates.
What About Fellow Top Defensemen This Season?
To find out which defensemen are considered to be the top candidates to win the Norris this season, I used the NHL’s Instagram post that tracked how NHL.com writers would vote for the trophy as of Jan. 8. The top-three based on that are Morgan Rielly, Mark Giordano and John Carlson.
Rielly is attempting to become the first player in Toronto Maple Leafs history to win a Norris Trophy. He has played in all of the team’s 45 games and has averaged .29 G/G and 1.04 P/G in them. These totals have led to a 4.7 OPS, 3.5 DPS and 8.2 PS. He also has a minus-12 turnover margin. Rielly is only behind Ekholm in defensive point shares.
At five-on-five, Rielly has averaged 17:29 of ice time, .76 G/60, 2.21 P/60, 7.39 S/60, 4.19 iSCF/60 and .69 iHDCF/60. He also has an IPP of 48.3. Ekholm has the better stats in time on ice and individual point percentage. Metrics-wise, the Predators have better numbers in all the “against” per-60 stats while Ekholm starts in the defensive zone a larger percent of the time.
Giordano, the veteran defenseman of the Calgary Flames who has been one of the game’s best blueliners in recent seasons yet hasn’t been named a Norris Trophy finalist, has appeared in all but two of the Flames’ games this season thanks to a suspension. In 45 games, his .20 G/G, 1.04 P/G, 4.2 OPS, 4.7 DPS, 8.8 PS and minus-11 turnover margin are all better than Ekholm’s numbers.
At five-on-five, Ekholm is averaging more time on ice than Giordano’s 17:19, but Giordano has the better numbers in goals, points, shots, individual scoring chances for and individual high-danger chances for per-60. However, his IPP of 46.8 isn’t as good as Ekholm’s. Ekholm also has the better shots for and against per-60 and high-danger chances against per-60 while playing more in the defensive zone.
Carlson, the Washington Capitals’ long-time franchise defenseman broke out in a major way last season as he led NHL blueliners in scoring, set career highs in goals and points and anchored Washington’s defense to a Stanley Cup. He was awarded with a fifth-place finish in Norris Trophy voting. Whether or not finishing that low in the voting bothered him, he has increased his performance from 2017-18 to this season as his scoring rate has increased.
He has played in 44 of the Capitals’ 45 games with scoring rates of .14 G/G and .95 P/G and has produced 3.4 OPS, 3.5 DPS and 6.8 PS while having a minus-17 turnover margin. The only one of those categories that he hasn’t been more productive than Ekholm in is defensive point shares.
At five-on-five, Carlson is skating 17:13 per game and scoring .24 G/60 and 1.66 P/60 while having an IPP of 38.2. He has also generated offense with 5.62 S/60, 2.53 iSCF/60 and .71 iHDCF/60 and is ahead of Ekholm in all but time on ice, goals-per-60 and individual point percentage. It’s in the metrics where Ekholm makes up some ground as he has the better numbers in the four “against” metrics per-60. Once again, Ekholm also has a higher defensive zone start percentage.
Does Ekholm Have a Chance?
It’s pretty obvious that there’s a legitimate case to be made for Ekholm receiving Norris consideration. He’s been the best defenseman on a strong Nashville blue line and his stats and metrics compare favorably to past winners and this season’s front runners. It also helps that he is trending in the right direction. With eight points in his last five games, including four consecutive multi-point efforts, Ekholm is now tied for the team-lead in points for defensemen and is top-10 in the league for the position.
But despite the fact that he belongs in the conversation, Ekholm has an outside shot at-best to be named a finalist, let alone win the award. It’s highly unlikely that he finishes with enough points to garner serious consideration and he won’t be helped with a strong narrative backing his campaign like recent winners have had. But even if he doesn’t win the 2019 Norris Trophy, Ekholm has emerged to become the Predators’ best defenseman, and the league is well aware of his status.
*All stats from Hockey-Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Corsica Hockey