Whenever a key injury occurs in the game of football, people around the sport will use the term “Next Man Up,” meaning it’s up to the next player on the depth chart to fill in and not miss a beat.
So when Roman Josi went down with a concussion on Oct. 5, three Nashville Predators defensemen were technically the Next Men Up. Rookie phenom Seth Jones moved up to the top pairing alongside Shea Weber; Mattias Ekholm assumed a bigger role with Kevin Klein; Ryan Ellis went from healthy scratch to the third pair.
Jones and Ellis have had their impact felt on the scoresheet, as both scored their first goal of the season in Saturday’s win against the Islanders. Ekholm’s effect hasn’t been as noticeable, but his quick maturation has been just as important. He has played 20-plus minutes in three of the last four games, assuming a chunk of Josi’s vacant ice time on special teams as well.
“He’s defending very well,” Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s using his assets – he’s a great skater, his stick has gotten a lot better in the last year. He’s using his legs, using his assets to get up the ice and back to pucks, break up forechecks. He’s got some deception in his game, so he’s harder to forecheck. He’s still learning but he’s done a really good job to this point.”
The Predators have had to have some patience with Ekholm over the last couple years. The Swedish defenseman made the opening night roster in 2011-12, but after two games he was quickly returned to his homeland for the rest of the season. His first experience of playing on the smaller ice did not go very well.
Ekholm spent all of last season in the AHL with Milwaukee but missed seven weeks of action due to a broken fibula. It was at that point where Ekholm felt he turned a corner in terms of feeling more comfortable in his transition the North American game.
“I got to see a lot of games from the stands and see everything from a different perspective. That helped me a lot,” he said. “The lockout was still going on and a lot of really good defense prospects were in the AHL and were dominating on their blue lines. It was good for me.”
Ekholm racked up 32 points in 59 games in his first season with Milwaukee and played in just one game in Nashville before the 2012-13 campaign concluded. Though he succeeded in the Swedish Elite League, it was a breakthrough season of sorts for him at the pro level.
Now he is showing glimpses of the potential everyone was excited about two years ago. With no timetable on Josi’s return, Ekholm’s role won’t change if he continues to play.
At 23 years old, Ekholm is the third-youngest defenseman on the Predators blue line. Jones, 19, and Ellis, 22, will also continue to play key roles in Josi’s absence. Ekholm and Jones in particular are playing more than most coaches are usually comfortable with when it comes to defensemen their age.
Ekholm is averaging 19:38 of ice time per game; Jones is averaging 23:30. Even though there will be some growing pains, this experience they are gaining should pay dividends as the season goes on.
“I think it will pay off big time for all of them,” Trotz said. “They should be better players 20, 30, 40 games down the road than they are now. That’s really good upside for all the young guys.”
Jones, drafted No. 4 overall in June, is the talk of the defense. He’s going to be a Calder Trophy candidate. He’s going to garner most of the headlines. The spotlight will be on him, and deservedly so.
But a case can be made that Ekholm is the most important defenseman right now for the Predators. Last season, Josi replaced Ryan Suter admirably but no one replaced Josi on the second pair. It’s a similar situation for the time being. Jones is doing a fine job filling in for Josi, but the Predators need someone to replace Jones.
So far, Ekholm is fulfilling the role as Next Man Up.
“I feel more and more comfortable every day,” he said. “I’m trying to enjoy it and learn as much as I can playing in the best league in the world, trying to play the way I have lately to see how far it can take me.”