EDMONTON and NASHVILLE — Mattias Ekholm is a Viking.
Six-foot-four, 215 pounds, and handsome as the very chalice he has come to Edmonton to capture, Ekholm is the absolute embodiment of the player the Edmonton Oilers could have hoped to add.
And here’s the kicker:
He sees it the same way.
“I’m super excited,” the 32-year-old said Tuesday in a trade call with reporters. “For the last five years I feel like every other year I’m in trade conversations. There have been times where someone has asked me about (a rumour) and I’ve been like, ‘I don’t know if that’s really a good fit.’ Or, ‘I don’t really want to go there.’
“But this time I feel like this team can really do damage in the playoffs. I’m beyond excited to join this group.”
The day began with Jesse Puljujarvi being traded to Carolina to create cap space for something bigger. Well, bigger came just a few hours later, in the form of a trade that saw Tyson Barrie, first-rounder Reid Schaefer, a 2023 first-round draft pick and a fourth in ’24 go to Nashville, for Ekholm and a sixth-round pick in ’24.
Barrie was an integral part of the NHL’s best powerplay, subtly working the top of the umbrella, knowing exactly when to shoot or where to be when an outlet was needed. But it was Barrie’s $4.5 million salary that was moved as much as the player attached to it, as Edmonton robs from an offensive Peter to buttress the defensive Paul.
The NHL’s top offensive team can afford a shift of that nature — particularly with the coming playoffs, where defending becomes a paramount concern.
“I think I have a pretty good sense of what it takes to shut guys down in the playoffs,” said Ekholm, who has played playoff hockey for eight years running. “That’s probably why I’m sitting here today — they acquired me for my defence. My defensive side of the puck.”
Over a 719-game NHL career, all spent in Nashville, Ekholm has become the very definition of reliable, having missed only 20 games over the past nine seasons. He also has a mean streak. He’ll punish forwards down low, and like Adam Larsson once did in Edmonton, stiffen the price of hanging around the Oilers slot.
Ekholm has anchored the Predators’ shutdown pair over the past several years with a variety of partners. Despite his size, Ekholm is not overly physical, preferring to use his reach to poke away pucks and clear them out of danger.
In terms of transporting the puck, perhaps surprisingly, Ekholm is one of the better puck-moving defencemen in the NHL. Out of 267 defencemen who have played at least 100 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Ekholm ranks 12th in controlled entries (1.6) and 26th in controlled exits (3.31) per 20 minutes, respectively. That will help the Oilers, who like to push the pace offensively.
“I think I’m a pretty good team guy that puts the team first,” he reckoned. “I don’t really care about the goals and assists, who gets them. But the team needs to win and the team needs to do well.”
The second eldest Oiler, Barrie had become part of the team’s leadership core. Now, slowly, Ekholm will take the temperature of a maturing Oilers group, putting his experienced stamp on the Edmonton dressing room the way Duncan Keith did so well a year ago.
He welcomes the role.
“Being in the National Hockey League for a long time, you know how to conduct yourself. On the ice, but also off the ice,” he said. “I know they have a young Swedish defenseman there today [Philip Broberg]. I haven’t met him yet, but I’m sure I’ll try to help him out as much as I can.
“That’s just a part of who I am.”
There is still some money in the kitty for a forward, likely on the right side with Puljujarvi gone.
We would predict that general manager Ken Holland, who surely never listened to the criticism from fans who called him idle, will add one more player before Friday’s deadline.
That addition, along with Ekholm, will give the Oilers every chance they need to match — or improve on — last year’s three-round playoff run.
The Viking, for one, can’t wait for it.
“This is the biggest opportunity I could ever receive in this stage of my career, to come to a team like this that has expectations of winning,” the father of two said. “That’s all I’m really focused on right now.”