With their third selection at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Montreal Canadiens selected Swedish defenceman Mattias Norlinder. A native of Kramfors, Norlinder had just completed his first foray into the professional game with Modo Hockey of the Allsvenskan. To learn more about the new Habs prospect, Eyes On The Prize was able to speak with his head coach this past season, Mr. Björn Hellkvist.
Taking time out of his holiday, Coach Hellkvist pulled no punches when asked if he was shocked that Norlinder was selected 64th overall.
“I was surprised he got taken in the third round. I expected him to go in the second. But Montreal was fortunate, and should be happy, as a few trades went their way and Mattias was there for the taking.”
In his final pre-draft season, Norlinder’s time was split between the Modo U20 team and the senior team. The fact that he didn’t spend the full year with the senior team could be used as a strike against the young defender, but Coach Hellkvist clearly explains that it was a conscious decision of the coaching staff.
“Very early last season, it was evident that he was too good for the Juniors. We only waited for the right moment to bring him into the senior team so it wouldn’t backfire and hurt his development.”
After watching Norlinder with the senior team, the Modo bench boss is clearly pleased with how the plan unfolded.
“We gave him some tough assignments and big responsibility directly when he came up to the team. He adapted extremely fast to senior hockey. Mattias brought with him a game we had lacked before he was promoted; his hockey IQ is exceptional and he sees the ice in front of him so well when he has the puck in transition along with his strong and precise outlet passes.”
With the Modo senior team, Norlinder was paired with former NHLer Tobias Enström. The plan was to have the veteran help ease the youngster’s transition to professional hockey, but Coach Hellkvist noted that the reality was the opposite.
“I actually think Enström got better with Norlinder last season. Mattias could have played with anyone, he is that good, but seeing him help a veteran like Enström was great. Mattias was so stable in his game the whole time and he brought out the best in Toby as they complemented each other so well. This made Toby even better.”
Asked to describe Norlinder’s development last season, Hellkvist says that Mattias “found his own way and really shone last season. He has something I haven’t seen in any other defender that I have coached. He has the whole package. He will become a great defender.”
Norlinder already has many skills, but the focus will always remain, first and foremost, on his skating. In fact, this is the first thing that his coach brought up when asked about the young defenceman’s strengths.
“His speed, his skating, and his technique. It helps him to transition the puck up the ice. It is so easy to focus on that, but he has such a fantastic eye for the game, which is necessary when you are as fast as Mattias.”
Coach Hellkvist is philosophical when it comes to Norlinder’s weaknesses, pointing out that his game has no glaring flaws, but rather areas in need of some improvement “He has a very good shot ... he is still a junior, he develops all the time and he will learn with experience when he should use his shot more.
“He needs to improve his physique. It is not that it is bad — on the contrary it is very good — but there is still room for improvement as he is only 19 years old. He needs to do time in the gym and on the bike to get better overall. That’s where the improvement will be [in the future].”
Coach Hellkvist dismisses any concerns about Norlinder’s recent injury, a scaphoid fracture suffered during weight training. Calling it a “hockey injury” and “something that all players will have some time during their career.” Hellkvist firmly believes that it should not cause any problems for the upcoming season or down the line.
Örnsköldsvik and the Modo Hockey Club have been synonymous with NHL talent for a long time, with the likes of Anders Hedberg, Mattias Timander, Markus Näslund, Niklas Sundström, Samuel Påhlsson, Peter Forsberg, and the Sedin twins hailing from the program. With this sort of pedigree, what expectations should Montreal fans have this upcoming season and beyond?
“Normally I tend to err on the side of caution in a situation like this, with a player that still counts as a junior, but this time I will be honest: I have high expectations for Mattias this season. He is such a player that I don’t have a problem to put some more pressure to him. I want him to improve all phases of his game, and he should be a leading defender both with Modo Hockey and in the Allsvenskan. I would be extremely surprised if he doesn’t become one of the defensive leaders on the World Junior Championship team, too.”
In terms of a future in the NHL, Coach Hellkvist is equally confident.
”I should be cautious, but I won’t be. I think he will be an NHL player. He has the whole package and I can’t see him failing with that goal. He will need a full season of pro hockey, he might need another year, but to be fair I think he can be ready to take the step over [to North America] already [for the 2020-21 season]. He is that good”.
Coach Hellkvist’s responses have been translated from the original Swedish by Patrik Bexell.