A comparison of Predators defensemen Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm reminds me of changing running shoes. I like my existing pair, but I want to give my new pair a chance. They feel good. I can almost convince myself they’re better than my old pair. Now it’s time for the big race. The new shoes are good. But when it comes right down to it, my old pair is better. In the big race, I trust them more, I use them, and I do not regret my decision.
Josi has been the Preds’ go-to guy on defense for several years. For the past five seasons, he has led the team in ice time. He’s respected for both his offense and defense. Josi is like the existing pair of running shoes. For the five seasons prior to 2018-19, Ekholm was a regular on the Nashville blueline who, for the most part, was used in a defensive capacity. His play showed steady improvement and in 2018-19 he was used in all situations. In the first half of the season, Ekholm was more productive offensively than he had ever been. Some speculated he had overtaken Josi as Nashville’s best D-man. Then came the stretch run and playoffs. Ekholm was the new pair of running shoes – he was OK, but not as good as the existing pair and not used as much in big situations. Let’s see why.
How many hockey observers realize that Ekholm is actually older than Josi? Ekholm turned 29 on May 24. Josi turned 29 eight days later on June 1. Josi was a second-round selection (38th overall) in 2008 from Switzerland. Ekholm was a fourth-round selection (102nd overall) in 2009 from Sweden. Josi arrived in North America in 2010, played one season in the AHL and became a regular on the Predators’ blueline in 2011. Ekholm arrived in North America in 2012 and also played one season in the AHL. He became a regular in Nashville in 2013. Josi quickly became recognized as a top-flight NHL defenseman, and he has received votes for the all-star team and Norris Trophy every season since 2014-15. Ekholm was recognized as a solid defensive player, but he had never received any support for the NHL all-star teams or Norris Trophy prior to 2018-19. Since 2018, Ekholm has earned his way onto the Predators’ second power-play unit and become more productive offensively. He just posted his first 40-plus point season. Josi has had six in a row. Edge: Josi
Josi has averaged more than 25 minutes of ice time per game the past six seasons. He is used in all situations. He has always been on the first unit for both the power play and penalty kill. Over the past five post-seasons, he has averaged almost 27 minutes per game. Josi is the go-to D-man in Nashville. Ekholm has increased his ice time over that same period from less than 17 to more than 23. He was always used to kill penalties, and he’s now on the second PP unit. His ice time usually rises in the playoffs, averaging about 25 minutes per game the past five seasons. Edge: Josi
This category is not close. Josi’s career points-per-game is almost double that of Ekholm. In the first half of 2018-19, Ekholm was on a hot streak and led Josi in points. But by the end of the season, Josi had 12 more points and was more of an offensive threat in the playoffs. Josi joins the rush more often – and more effectively – and his puckhandling and decision-making at the offensive blueline are quicker and more effective. Both have heavy shots, but Josi has a quicker release. Edge: Josi
This is the area where Ekholm developed his role on the Predators. After Shea Weber was traded in 2016, the three most prominent defensemen in Nashville were Josi, P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis. All of them were noted for their offensive production, and both Subban and Ellis had defensive deficiencies. Ekholm’s defensive role became valuable. With his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame, he had range and strength. His backward mobility is unexceptional, but his size and anticipation make him an effective defender. He can be used against the opposition’s top players. Josi has quicker feet than Ekholm, but his defensive style is different. He is more of a gambler, with one hand on his stick, trying to steal pucks or intercept passes. He has a solid 6-foot-1, 200-pound build but lacks the range of Ekholm. In the defensive zone, his 1-on-1 play is not as good. Edge: Ekholm
Josi is an elite skater in the NHL. His mobility is one of his biggest strengths. Although he lacks blinding speed, his pace is above average, and his agility and balance are exceptional. His backward skating is particularly impressive. His feet are light, and he pivots without effort. The most significant aspect of his skating is that he is able to perform every facet of it just as well with the puck as without it. Ekholm is a good skater, but he is not above average in any respect. In particular, Ekholm’s speed, agility, backward skating and pivots are all in the average range. His hockey sense and size often help to make up for a lack of agility or quickness. Late in the regular season and in the playoffs, his slow pivots with the puck resulted in some off-balance giveaways. Edge: Josi
There are no perfect defensemen. The only flaw I can see with Josi is that he is not forceful in 1-on-1 situations. He jabs with one hand on his stick and he’s usually looking to steal the puck quickly. Despite his high level of ice time, he has averaged less than 30 penalty minutes per season the past six years. Ekholm showed his major shortcomings during the stretch run and in the playoffs. Very simply, he looked gassed. His lack of quickness became more obvious, and his off-balance giveaways were too frequent. He cannot reach the elite group of defensive defensemen in the NHL with his rate of giveaways. He has averaged more than 56 giveaways per season the past six years, including an average of 70 the past two seasons. He took several minor penalties in Nashville’s first-round playoff loss to Dallas because he was too slow reacting to changes in possession. Edge: Josi
Ekholm has improved his game significantly the past two seasons. He has upgraded his role from being a No. 4 D-man on a strong NHL team to that of a No. 2. This is impressive. But let’s not overplay his hand because of this improvement. Ekholm is not as good as Josi. Ekholm is a better 1-on-1 defender in the defensive zone when the opposition has the puck. In every other aspect of the game, Josi is superior. When the crucial games took place at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, the difference between the two was obvious. The new pair of running shoes has been a good investment. Let’s keep them and make use of them. The existing pair of running shoes remains superior. Use them for the big races. Take Roman Josi over Mattias Ekholm.
Tom Thompson has been an NHL scout/director/assistant GM since 1985.