Is Predators blueliner Mattias Ekholm the biggest bargain in the NHL today?

On a team-friendly deal with term remaining, the Nashville Predators rearguard has grown to become one of the most underrated blueliners in the NHL. And that's just the way he likes it.
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After the Nashville Predators’ impressive 4-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night, Mattias Ekholm was asked whether he was credited with an assist on the final goal of the game, which came with 38 seconds go to. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t follow numbers that much.”

That’s a good thing, because then he might look at the digits on his paycheck and get in a worse mood than he does when an opposing forward tries to take up his space in front of the Predators net. Ekholm’s $3.75 million salary, combined with the fact he has three seasons remaining on his deal after this one, makes him one of the biggest bargains in the NHL. (Teammate Roman Josi at $4 million falls into the same category, but he only has one year left on his deal after this season.) Ekholm scored a goal and an assist against Toronto, his fifth goal and his 30th point of the season, which put him five points away from his career high. The offensive production is beginning to complement an outstanding shutdown game, which would make Ekholm worth a lot more if he hadn’t signed a six-year, $22.5 million deal in summer of 2016.

That’s a typical David Poile contract, one that looks better and better for the team with every passing year. But the way Ekholm sees it, he does not second-guess himself fortrading security for the chances to cash in on a deal with a lesser term. “I never regret signing that deal,” Ekholm said. “I think it’s something that allowed me to play this way. If I was on one-year deals, you don’t have the comfort zone of not having to think about money. I have a deal that’s going to set me and my family up. You get these deals and a lot of people say, ‘You could have got more,’ but it’s already so much money that I probably won’t spend it in my lifetime. Where I’m from (Borlange, Swe.), you don’t need that much.”

It seems on this defense corps, everyone takes his turn being underrated, particularly when a personality as big as P.K. Subban’s takes up so much of the oxygen. For a while it was Josi, then it was Ryan Ellis. And now it’s Ekholm’s turn to be the underrated one. That might be the case outside of Nashville, but the Predators know what they have in Ekholm. He might be one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL and the offense is coming on strong for him.

“He gets it from us, he gets it from me,” said Predators coach Peter Laviolette when it comes to Ekholm’s recognition factor. “He’s just a really solid two-way defenseman. He’s mobile, he’s big, he’s angry, he can put points on the board. I want him out there in the last minute of the game. There’s a lot that he brings to the table. His game is so strong and growing every year.”

Partly because he’s Swedish and doesn’t seem terribly impressed with himself, Ekholm doesn’t allow the lack of fanfare bother him in the least. In fact, like his contract, he turns it into a positive, saying that so much is expected of players when they’re highly regarded that when they don’t have a good game it sticks out like a sore thumb. Another aspect where flying under the radar helps him is in his approach to the game. The guy is actually pretty sneaky dirty, but manages to keep his penalty minutes at a reasonable level because he’s so inconspicuous about it.

“It’s a really good thing on the nights when you don’t have great nights,” Ekholm said. “Those nights when you’re dash-3 (minus-3) and you just don’t have it, it’s good not to be in the line of fire. It goes both ways. I’d rather be underrated than overrated.”

Of that dash-3 thing, it should be noted that in Ekholm’s 344 career NHL games, he has been minus-3 or worse only nine times. Not bad for a player who does a lot of the heavy lifting in the defensive zone against some of the best forwards on the planet. Part of what makes him so effective, going back to the sneaky dirty stuff, is that he is so difficult to play against when you enter his area of the ice. It’s something you can tell he takes a ton of pride in doing and he does it well.

“When you’re lined up against these guys and you have them come in and take your space and don’t do anything about it, they’re going to come in and take it every time,” Ekholm said. “Standing up for myself and trying not to cross the line is something I battle with every day, trying not to go to far and play a hard, physical, honest game. I feel like when you’re playing against this kind of top talent, you’ve got to have something that makes them not want to come close to you.”

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