BROSSARD, Que — This day was over two years in the making for Mattias Norlinder, the 64th pick in the 2019 NHL Draft who arrived in Montreal with the spotlight squarely focused on him, and he handled it well.
How the five-foot-10, 179-pound defenceman manages the remainder of this rookie camp, and his first NHL training camp to follow, will ultimately determine if he starts the season with the Canadiens or returns to Sweden to play in the SHL with Frolunda.
But on this day, he was a standout among 26 other prospects taking part in the first on-ice session under Laval Rocket coach Jean-Francois Houle. Norlinder’s a smooth-skating, quick-thinking, pure-shooting talent, and he appeared perfectly comfortable showing that while taking his first strides on a North American ice surface.
He seemed just as comfortable fielding questions from reporters for close to 14 minutes after Thursday’s hour-and-a-half practice wrapped.
“I’m here to take a place,” Norlinder said, “and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
One person who believes he may do it is Fredrik Sjostrom, an NHLer with four different franchises from 2003-11 who has been serving as Frolunda’s general manager since 2016.
Selfishly, though, Sjostrom would prefer to have Norlinder playing big minutes on the left side of his team’s defence and quarterbacking its power play.
“I think he will impress people with his skating and his skill,” said Sjostrom in an interview with Sportsnet on Wednesday, “and it’ll be up to him to prove he’s ready.”
“We’ll be happy for him if he does it,” Sjostrom added, “but I think one more year with us is not going to hurt his development. He’s going to have a very good role on our team, and that will benefit him. Still, we know it comes down to how good he does in camp and what he can show there.”
That’s the point of this exercise.
Every player who comes to rookie camp has the ambition to prove they belong in the NHL and, as Houle rightly pointed out, believing that possibility exists is paramount to their development.
“I think rookie camp is the start of everything,” the coach said. “It’s the start of the hockey season, and it sets the tone for the organization. And that’s where a young player like Norlinder can make a name for himself above and beyond what he already has.
“These rookie camps are very, very important for a lot of players. All the rookie camps I’ve been a part of, there’s always some surprises, there’s always been players that flourish and come to the top. So, hopefully he has a good week and can show the people here in Montreal that he may be ready for a spot.”
It’s what Norlinder showed in Sweden — first in Modo, and then with Frolunda last season — that has made him a main attraction in Brossard.
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He put up nine goals and 24 points in 48 games over two seasons in the country’s second-tier professional league before debuting in the SHL with five goals and 10 points in 37 regular-season games. Norlinder recorded three goals and five points to lead Frolunda in scoring through its seven playoff games.
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Sjostrom, who referred to Norlinder’s skill as “jaw-dropping,” saw tremendous growth in his game — even if the young player had to navigate a fair deal of adversity too.
“I think Mattias had a pretty good season for us last season,” Sjostrom said. “He started off pretty good. Then he had a pretty tough middle section of the season, but he came on pretty strong at the end. There were some ups and downs, and I think he’s starting at a much higher level this season.”
The shoulder injury suffered at the Karjala Cup last November, which kept Norlinder out four weeks, was certainly a downer.
And five games into his return with Frolunda, he sustained a knee injury that sidelined him another three weeks.
“That was kind of a tough period last year,” Norlinder said, “but it’s part of the business.”
So was learning to rebound quickly from performances that fell below his own high personal standards.
“He cares a lot about the game, and I think he’s a really good guy and he wants to be good every night,” said Sjostrom. “But sometimes it gets to you and you care too much and it’s easy to be negative about your own performance.
“I think at the pro level, you have to be good at shrugging off bad performances because you’ve got a game the next night and you can’t dwell on it too much. If you have a bad game, you have to refocus very quick and then it’s a new game coming up. I think you learn that, and I went through that myself. You have some bad games and dwell on that, and you want to be good, but I think it’s good if you can reset and refocus. That’s very important.”
It’s something Norlinder appears to have gained perspective on, in addition to learning how to concentrate more on the defensive parts of his game in a league he considers to be among the stingiest in the world.
He said his focus in Frolunda was “to play strong in front of the net and to gap up and just be harder and maybe more aggressive on the boards,” and now he’ll have to continue to grow quickly in those areas if he wants to realize his goal of playing in the NHL this season.
Doing so on the smaller ice, where time and space are more limited, is a challenge Norlinder, Sjostrom and Houle all know the player will face over the coming weeks.
“It’s not easy to do for defencemen,” said Houle. “Especially from a defensive standpoint, killing plays, being stick on the puck, it’s not easy. But I think he has a good head for the game and he’s a player who’s going to learn very quickly.”
One aspect of the game that won’t require much of an adjustment for Norlinder will be playing the right side as a left-shot defenceman. He said he did it for three years before starting on the left with Frolunda this year, and he appeared totally at ease there throughout his first practice at rookie camp.
That gives him an edge in his pursuit of a roster spot with the Canadiens this fall, with the defence being shallower on that side.
Norlinder’s skating, his puck-moving ability and his power-play presence could also help fill needs, if he proves capable of playing at this level.
That process will continue to be under the microscope — and not just here in Quebec — as camp continues.
“For us, we’re going to follow this closely,” said Sjostrom. “We want Mattias to do well, and we’re proud of him. It’s his dream to play in the NHL, so you want the kid to succeed.
“But then again, if the judgment ends up being he’s not ready, we’d really be happy if he comes back to us for one more year.”