It was one of the biggest questions about the Nashville Predators’ blueline after acquiring Ryan McDonagh in July.
With not one, not two, but three premier left handed defensemen in the rotation, all of which deserve top four minutes, who would make the switch to playing on the right side?
After only a few training camp practices and a couple of preseason games, we have our answer: Mattias Ekholm, the often quiet, never underestimated Swedish mainstay will make the switch and play on the right side for foreseeable future.
“When we were in the process of talking with McDonagh to come through,” head coach John Hynes said last Friday, “I personally called [Ekholm] and said ‘We know there’s a potential that we’re gonna be able to get McDonagh. If that were the case, we’d like to try you on the right, are you good with that? Do you feel comfortable with it?'”
Ekholm’s answer was an emphatic yes.
“He was like ‘Hey if we can get a guy like Ryan McDonagh on our team, I’ll slide over to the right. I’ve played it.'”
Ekholm’s experience, willingness pays off
Since 2012, Ekholm has played on the right side of the defense a handful of times. The last time he did so was December 2017, playing alongside Anthony Bitetto in a 3-0 win over Minnesota. Before that was in February 2016, also with Bitetto, this time a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia. Before that, Ekholm played three games with Victor Bartley and one other with Bitetto back in 2015.
“I played it, I think it was a couple of years ago now,” Ekholm said about the switch. “I’ve played with [Alex Carrier] the last couple years here, but it’s not a big adjustment.”
On The #Preds: Ep 47 | Preseason action at Bridgestone!— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) September 27, 2022
@SCSNSH and I go over:
✅ 2nd line confirmed
👥 McDonagh + Ekholm = v good
👶 Young 'uns that could make roster
Link: https://t.co/T3R3nqNRIq pic.twitter.com/b1tyAYzbfh
One thing that helps for Ekholm is the time he’s had to prepare for the switch this season. The phone call in July from Hynes to Ekholm that green lit the McDonagh trade also gave Ekholm three full months to start preparing.
“It was nice because he knew all summer,” Hynes said. “I know he practiced there and he was over in Sweden practicing with a pro team there. Played on the right side. We’re gonna try to keep him on the right side.
Hynes also added that while Ekholm will play on the right side, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be with McDonagh all season.
“We’re probably gonna try him with Josi, maybe try another guy with McDonagh, but we’re gonna try to keep Ekholm on the right for now.”
It’s hard to overstate how important and necessary of a switch this is for the Preds. With Ekholm moving from left to right, the flexibility of the Preds’ blueline makeup changes dramatically. Not only can the coaching staff now give equal minutes to their three best defensemen, but they can alter defensive pairings depending on matchups.
A McDonagh-Ekholm pairing gives them stout defense without much drop in offensive skill. A Josi-Ekholm pairing gives them a dynamic pair with plenty of experience playing together. And the coaches don’t have to commit to one or the other early on and hope it pays dividends later. The entire defensive unit begins the season with more balance, something that group lacked for much of last year.
And none of that happens without Ekholm’s willingness to make the switch.
Don’t ignore the “left to right” challenge
Some folks might think the switch from left to right is merely superficial. What could it matter, going from one side to the other?
The difference here is all about handedness, both in the offensive and defensive zones.
“There’s some pros and cons with it,” Ekholm said. “Obviously in the offensive zone, you always have the one timer on your side, so that’s good. But if the puck’s coming up to you against the boards, you’re gonna be on your back hand. So that’s another challenge.
Ekholm is a left handed player. When the puck comes to him along the boards on the left side, it’s much easier for him to gain possession and make something happen. Forehand control is easier than backhand control. On the right side, when the puck comes along the boards, he will be on his backhand.
Obviously, these are NHL players we are talking about. They are incredibly skilled on both forehand and backhand. But even the slightest misplay or poor touch can create opportunities for opposing forwards. Ekholm has plenty of size, so he will likely rely on that when his backhand fails.
“But guys try and take you wide, you’re gonna have a longer range that way,” Ekholm added, alluding to his ability to use his size to his advantage. “So if I ended up playing with them, and I’ll be on the outside that’s no problem for me. I think I can handle that. I’ve done it in the past.”
The offensive advantages for Ekholm are going to be interesting to watch. As he mentioned, in the offensive zone, he will have a forehand one timer available on cross ice passes. Ekholm has a powerful shot, so that should create more scoring chances.
Ekholm finished last season with six goals and 25 assists, but his points per game average dropped from 1.3 to 1.0. Part of that was shooting only 4.1%, a four year low for him, but also having to do more defensive work while paired with Alex Carrier.
His new potential pairing with Ryan McDonagh will likely allow Ekholm to get back to creating quality scoring chances, both with his skating and shooting.
“He’s a steady veteran,” Ekholm said about McDonagh. “Really good defensive reads and the way he positions himself. Hard to get by for the forwards. For me on the other side with him, it’s been a pleasure so far to play with him. His track record speaks for itself. Everything that I expected.”
Ekholm and McDonagh were paired together in the second preseason game against Florida, which ended in a 4-0 Preds win. McDonagh had an assist on a Tanner Jeannot tipped goal to make it 4-0 late in the 3rd.
Early returns on the McDonagh and Ekholm pairing: very good.— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) September 27, 2022
“I think we’re kind of, not the same player, but we tend to want to play the same way. So I think it’s a really good match,” Ekholm said.
“Hopefully we both can help each other to grow our game both offensively and defensively and create some chemistry. That’s what we have to do to get going. Because I know he can contribute offensively as well, so hopefully we both can feed off each other.”
— Featured image via Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports —