The Nashville Predators have never been a flashy team. Under the guidance of GM David Poile, the Predators have had a blue collar attitude, preached system and defense and found success with a team built from the back end out. Part of that is cultivating a stellar blueline, and Nashville locked up a promising piece for their defense by signing Mattias Ekholm to a six-year, $22.5-million extension Monday.
Ekholm, 25, is entering his third full season with the Predators and has already become a solid contributor to Nashville’s defensive depth. Ekholm was a top-four defenseman for the Predators in 2014-15 and through 2015-16, he has played on both the second- and third-pairing, logging more than 18 minutes per night.
The six-year extension for Ekholm, especially at a cap hit of $3.75 million per season, makes it clear what Nashville’s intentions are. He’s now the third-highest paid defenseman on the Nashville roster, out-earning Ryan Ellis and making only $250,000 less per season than standout Roman Josi. The Predators are grooming Ekholm to be an everyday top-four defender and that could come as soon as this season.
Ekholm has a more offensive slant in his usage by coach Peter Laviolette, which could make him a natural fit on the second pairing alongside the ever-improving Seth Jones.
Jones is a pure two-way defender who has shown he can log defensive minutes as a second-pairing blueliner and Ekholm has an offensive ability that could make him a threat from the back end on the second unit. That’s not to discount his defensive acumen, however, as Ekholm had the third toughest quality of competition of defensemen who spent the whole season with the Predators in 2014-15.
In eight games this season, Ekholm has one goal and three points and he has been used as a fifth option on the power play while also being given the chance to show his ability on the penalty kill.
That his minutes have gone down this season are less an indicator of the Ekholm’s play as it is of Laviolette’s attempt to spread out his talent on the back end to make each pairing stronger. It’s hard to argue with the results. Through eight games the Predators have allowed the third-fewest goals and 10th-fewest shots against per game and boast a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 50.1.
That’s incredible considering Nashville’s blueline consists of players almost entirely under the age of 25. The greybeards are Shea Weber (30) and Barret Jackman (34), and Victor Bartley (27) plays a fill-in role. Because Nashville has never had a true offensive superstar — when Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg were Predators, they were out of their prime — the team has always been keen on a stellar blueline. Keeping Ekholm is town is yet another move to maintain a young, solid defense, which is now built of players who can grow together.
As for salary cap implications, there's no reason to worry about the Predators. Nashville will have more than $20 million in cap space to sign key restricted free agents such as Jones, Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok, and they've got a number of promising prospects who could be NHL ready by 2016-17.
The Predators, under Poile, continue to build a team on a budget that can win tight games. It may not be the most flashy style, but it’s one that has led the Predators to the post-season in seven of the past 10 seasons. Hard to argue with results.