That Big Swede
Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
6 months ago
With that stellar Viking beard he’s sporting, I’ve always thought big Swede Mattias Ekholm would look as at home brandishing a two-handed Berserker axe as he does wielding his hockey stick playing with the Edmonton Oilers.
Add in the cut and welt under Ekholm’s right eye as he sat in front of reporters beside Zach Hyman yesterday and the look was complete. Truth is, Ekholm’s marked up mug took me back to the days of Jason Smith, the tough-as-nails and mean-as-hell captain of the Oilers who usually showed up for season-ending availabilities like this one sporting the same signs of the price paid in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. Black and blue déjà vu.
Like Smith, Ekholm, who turns 33 next Wednesday, is a tough, honest player who battles for every inch of ice and every puck with great gusto. Ekholm, six-foot-four and 215 pounds, is a bit bigger and more offensively gifted than Gator was and maybe just a touch less nasty, but they’re cut from the same cloth.
Between the immediate impact Ekholm made with the Oilers – they went 18-2-1 after he arrived in the Feb. 28 swap for Tyson Barrie — and the profound effect he’s had on defensive partner Evan Bouchard, it was obvious almost right away that GM Ken Holland brought in exactly the player coach Jay Woodcroft needed. Better still, Ekholm, under contract for another three years with a $6.25 million AAV, says he is more than happy to be in Oil Country even with an early exit from post-season.
WHAT HE SAID
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“It’s been really great for me, obviously, coming from Nashville where we were selling at the time,” Ekholm said of the move to the Oilers after 719 games with the Predators. “To be able at my age to come here to a team – I mean, we lost in the second round and nobody feels good about anything the way that happened.
“Everyone expects to win. Everybody thinks we should win. We have a team that is capable of doing it. We obviously fell short, but to me, that’s awesome and it’s really exciting. That opportunity is something I’ll cherish this summer and work even harder on my game and come back this fall able to compete even harder. I think we have what it takes in the room.”
As for the impact he’s had in being a mentor and helping bring Bouchard along, Ekholm is aw-shucks modest about the big strides the youngster has taken since he arrived.
“I try to be a steady presence for him knowing that he can play his game,” Ekholm said. “Obviously, he needs to play offensively and needs to play really close to the edge of where the general public would look at risky plays . . . that’s his game, what he needs to do.
“From day one since I got here, he has just been taking steps himself. It’s not that I’ve talked to him or said anything. He’s just a young player and I think, again, when I got here he was just scratching the surface. You could really tell he just needs to be put in the right direction and he’s going to take off. You guys all saw his coming out party these playoffs. He was a force on the back end for us, especially on that power play unit.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
You get some insight into what makes Ekholm tick and the value he brings to a group like this when he talks about being in the right place at the right time at this point in his career. Here and now, that’s Edmonton.
“I wouldn’t change this to go to any other team in the league, and I stand behind that 100 per cent,” Ekholm said. “Everybody in this team just bleeds to win and that’s something that’s really awesome to be a part of, especially at the point of my career where I am now. I’m 33 here in a couple of days and I’m not getting any younger, but I still think I have a lot left in me, and the hunger is still there. I haven’t won yet.
“To me, I think the culture is great. I think that everybody says the right things, everybody does the right things. It’s just a matter of getting everything together. And again, we played a really good team in the second round, but I also think we’re a really good team and we just got to make sure we get those margins on our side.”
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