Mattias Ekholm is exactly what the Oilers needed
The 32-year-old is loving life in Edmonton, guiding the Oilers to a 8-2-0 record since his arrival at the trade deadline.
Joining a new team midway through a season can often be challenging as you’re needed to learn new schemes and systems on the fly. But that hasn’t been the case for veteran defenceman Mattias Ekholm, who’s fit like a glove with the Edmonton Oilers since his arrival.
Following 11-and-a-half seasons with the Nashville Predators, Ekholm was acquired by Edmonton in a big deal earlier this month, which sent a package headlined by fellow blueliner Tyson Barrie — who owns one goal and four points in 11 games with the Preds — the other way.
It was a steep price to pay for the Oilers, especially since Barrie was well-respected throughout the locker room, but a necessary move for a franchise with Stanley Cup aspirations. And it has done wonders for their defensive corps — the club’s biggest weakness for much of this season.
Ekholm, one of the NHL’s most effective shutdown blueliners, has come as advertised thus far, as he’s rapidly cleaned up the team’s poor defensive zone play. While Edmonton is still allowing 3.5 goals per game — tied for 10th-most league-wide since March 1 — that figure would likely be even worse if not for Ekholm.
Between the 32-year-old’s defensive awareness, physicality, gap control, net-front defence, stick-checking and willingness to clog shooting lanes with his body, he has been precisely what this defence has needed all year.
What has been most surprising, however, is the offensive upside he has brought since joining the roster, tallying three goals and nine points in just 10 contests. That has made him a plus-15 with the Oilers, who are 8-2-0 since the trade, the second-best record in the league.
We’re just three weeks into Ekholm’s tenure in Edmonton, and yet, he has already notched half as many points with his new team as he did in 57 games with Nashville, where he scored five goals and 18 points. His points-per-game rate has climbed to 0.9, which would be a career-high over a full season.
Part of this sudden increase is because he features a 15.8 percent shooting percentage with the Oilers, up 10.1 percent post-trade, but it also helps that he is playing with superstars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Edmonton has relied heavily on its forwards to generate consistent offence this season, and understandably so given the immense offensive firepower their top-six forward group possesses. Ekholm, however, has helped alleviate some of that pressure with his offensive prowess lately.
The 6-foot-4 defenceman was crucial in Monday’s 5-4 comeback victory over the San Jose Sharks, as his second goal of the game — and second career multi-goal performance — knotted the action at four goals apiece, ultimately leading to an overtime winner from teammate Darnell Nurse.
Doc working overtime on that game-winner 😤 pic.twitter.com/BThF7QQMcY
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) March 21, 2023
Few mid-season acquisitions have been more productive or meaningful to their respective team than Ekholm in 2022-23. But his impact on the Oilers goes far beyond just his individual metrics.
With head coach Jay Woodcroft keeping the Darnell Nurse-Cody Ceci pairing together, Ekholm has been positioned alongside youngster Evan Bouchard, who had previously skated with rookie Philip Broberg on the club’s bottom pairing. Since that duo formed, though, it has excelled during 5-on-5 situations.
The Ekholm-Bouchard pairing is among Edmonton’s most reliable defensive units this season, as they rank second in Expected Goals (63.6 percent) and fourth in Corsi (57 percent) and Fenwick (55.1 percent) among qualified pairings (min. 100 minutes), according to MoneyPuck.
At 32, Ekholm has provided stability to Edmonton’s second defensive pairing, which has coincided with Bouchard’s increased confidence, allowing the 23-year-old to lean into his main strong suit: generating offence. As a result, he has one goal and nine points this month, with six coming at even strength.
Woodcroft rewarded them with additional ice time Monday night against San Jose, as they logged 15:00 minutes at 5-on-5, only six seconds fewer than the Nurse-Ceci pairing. That balanced approach kept both lines fresh, preventing Edmonton’s coaching staff from over-relying on its top unit.
In particular, reducing Nurse’s workload is extremely meaningful as he leads the Oilers in average ice time (23:41) this season, compiling almost a minute more than McDavid (22:43).
Nurse was averaging 23:51 minutes a night and playing close to half the game on occasion prior to March 1. Since then, however, the left-hander has seen a drastic improvement, logging 22:38 of ice time per contest and staying below the 25-minute threshold each night.
One of the ways Ekholm has provided relief is on the penalty kill, where he has played the second-most amount of ice time (22:49) behind Nurse (23:06). Another has been his effectiveness in that role, as the former Predator sits third in CF% (12 percent) and xGF% (12.49 percent).
Adding Ekholm to the mix has made everyone else’s job much easier, which was general manager Ken Holland’s main reason for acquiring him.
The Oilers, of course, have their sights set on reaching to the Stanley Cup Final this summer — a goal they fell short of after being swept by the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference final last postseason. But after acquiring Ekholm, who has 75 games of playoff experience and a 2017 Cup Final appearance under his belt, Edmonton appears primed for another deep run.